Post Easter Reflection from Val Webb.
Easter is a difficult time for many. What really happened? Different people say different things. This Easter, I listened to many church services online - different takes on the same story. With social distancing and no big crowds, the Vatican services focussed on the splendour of gold candlesticks, painted ceilings, mosaic floors and the billowing gold-embroidered robes of priests re-enacting Jesus%u2019 death at the altar. On another channel, a TV evangelist literally wallowed in the blood flowing from the cross. I say 'literally' and 'wallowing' deliberately, as in this interpretation of Easter, the agony of a dying man who defied both Roman and Jewish rulers becomes simply a story about what the blood did for us and our salvation. Other preachers, who realize a man 'rising from the dead' does not sit well in a twenty-first century scientific world, also told the story as about us - a metaphor for our dying and rising, from old life to new life, defeat to victory, oppression to liberation, despair to hope, avoiding the 'what actually happened' question.
As a scientist in my early life, I struggle with a man coming to life again after three days. In a tradition that read Bible stories literally in my youth, this struggle became almost pathological in my attempts to believe a bodily resurrection. Apart from the science, this denies the full humanity of Jesus argued in our creeds 'fully human/ fully divine'. I now know, as a theologian, that the stories of a bodily Jesus appearing to the disciples are in the later Gospels, not the earliest one, Mark, which originally ended with the women fleeing the empty tomb in terror, saying nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8). In Paul's letters, written before the Gospels, the resurrection is not 'bodily' but spiritual.
Many clergy online tried to make sense of Easter this year, in ways comfortable (or uncomfortable) for them. However, as we cannot know exactly what happened, perhaps each of us need to resolve the 'what happened' question for ourselves in the way that makes sense to us; and focus instead on what we can know. If we are not sure about a man coming to life again, whether flesh or spirit; or a God demanding the barbaric death of an innocent son in order to reconcile us to that 'loving' God, we can relate to fellow human beings, the followers of Jesus. This focus does not appropriate the Easter events to be about us, whether our salvation, what we believe, or a metaphor for our dying and rising experiences. Rather, it allows us to hear the story and, as humans, identify with those who also heard it and struggled with it. Remember Peter's denial, the women's terror and amazement, the disciples hiding in a closed room, Thomas demanding visible proof - they were not at all certain about what happened.
In my early New Testament studies, a professor said of Easter, it is better to start with the post Easter followers. Whatever happened, they changed from defeated to energised followers who went out to spread Jesus' message, even ready to die like their leader. What was this message? Love God and neighbour, thus bringing in God's reign. And who is our neighbour? According to Jesus' Good Samaritan story, everyone is a neighbour and loving them includes seeking justice and having mercy. This extraordinary counter-cultural message for that time changed those disciples when they realized the spirit that was in Jesus was also in them - 'I will send a comforter who will lead you into all truth', Jesus said.
This radical message in our capitalistic, individualistic world has transformed followers over and over through history. Loving God and neighbours today encompasses justice for refugees and addressing climate change, poverty, violence against women and racism, to name a few. We may not have the courage of the rebel Jesus - although we do have examples of such courage through history - but we can identify with his followers, many less advantaged who knew poverty, dispossession and oppression, as they resonated with his vision of an incoming just 'reign of God'. We can also understand some of their feelings as their leader moved closer to a danger that might also endanger them - his determination to go to Jerusalem at Passover; his anti-imperial challenge of riding into town on a donkey, hailed by the crowd, as the Roman army rode in through a different gate; Judas selling out to Jesus' enemies; Peter denying any allegiance when the stakes became high; and the cross, a punishment for the worst offenders. Then it all goes up in flames, leaving them defeated, discouraged and in danger.
Some of you may not be happy with what I write. That's fine. For many, the supernatural elements - a virgin birth, miracles, a bodily resurrection, personal salvation and a place in heaven - make the Jesus story important, not the man who wanted to change his world. Some may call me a 'heretic' or classify me as 'not Christian', but these claims are interesting in themselves. A 'heretic' originally meant someone from a particular school of thought, but once an 'orthodox' Christian position was declared in the centuries following Jesus, 'heretic' became the label for any other position and led to persecution. Given the thousands of Christian denominations today, there must be both millions of 'heretics' and many 'orthodox' or correct positions! As for 'What is a Christian?', I like the New Testament description of the first Christians - 'followers of Jesus'. I am a follower of the message and vision of Jesus in whom the Divine spirit dwelt, that Comforter also promised to his followers which transformed them into carrying on his vision.
“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me. ”
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. ”
“Show hospitality to strangers. ”
“Prayer is where the action is.”