Saturday, April 3, 2010

He is risen indeed Halelujah!


Mark 16.1-8 Without Easter, we wouldn't know about Jesus: if his story had ended at the crucifixion he would probably have been forgotten other that for passing references in contemporary sources. There would have been no community memory to pass on.

What kind of stories are the Easter stories, then? What language do they use? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or is it a combination?

Those of us who grew up as Christians in in overt Christian environment have an awareness of the Easter message, albeit an amalgam of the entirety of the four gospels and the gloss of Acts and the epistles.

Borg and Crossan use the terms "hard" and "soft" interpretation. The hard form, affirmed by Christians committed to ideas of biblical inerrancy, sees every detail as factually, literally and infallibly true. Many other Christians affirm a softer view: aware of differences in the accounts, they do not insist on the factual accuracy of every detail and recognise that witnesses to any event can have quite different recollections depending on a number of factors. In my own classroom last week thirty fourteen year olds were unable to agree on the exact sequence of a simple cause and effect process. Those who affirm the softer view are not concerned whether there was one angel (Mark and Matthew) or two (Luke) at the tomb and may disagree amongst themselves about the meaning of the word angel and therefore the nature of angels. They don't worry about where the disciples hid out after the crucifixion: Jerusalem (Luke) or Galilee (Matthew) but they do affirm the historicity of the basics: the tomb was really empty, this was because God transformed the body of Jesus and Jesus did appear to his disciples after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.

So central is the historical accuracy of the stories for many people, that if they didn't happen in this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear. If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (St. Paul 1 Cor 15.14) At one and the same time some of us assent to Paul's statement while not necessarily assuming that it intrinsically points to the historical accuracy of a tomb empty of a physical body. When I was an undergraduate my Professor of Theology, David Jenkins, left to become the Bishop of Durham and he got in deep water for saying such things and was roundly condemned as an atheist Bishop amongst those who followed the hard interpretation. He is still a byword for apostasy and heresy in certain circles of the CofE, unjustly so. The Resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with old bones he said. I was constantly amazed and disturbed that the words more than were excised from the text of his address.

It must be the case that an emphasis on the historical facts of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that in another time could have been filmed as they unfolded, gets in the way of understanding them. On the one hand, it is a stumbling block for those who have difficulty in believing that the stories are factual. If such people think that believing these stories to be factually accurate is essential to being a Christian, then they can't be Christians. The issue is not simply whether "things like this" ever happen. Rather, the issue is generated by the stories themselves; often the differences are hard to reconcile, and their language often seems to be other than the language of historical reporting. We often do not get beyond the Did they happen? reply to the What do they mean? question.

When these stories are seen as history, their function is to report publicly observable events that could have been witnessed by anyone who was there. When we see these stories as parable we need to use the model of parable Jesus himself used - the truth of the story is not dependent on whether it is historically accurate: there was no Good Samaritan. Does that render the story meaningless? Parables can be true - truth filled and truthful - regardless of their factual accuracy and to worry about factual accuracy misses the point. The point lies in its meaning and in you and I getting that meaning.

Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factual accuracy. It's quite happy leaving that question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. As an example, an empty tomb without a meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd event. It is only when meaning is ascribed to it that it takes on significance. Parable can be based on a particular event (there could have been a Good Samaritan whose actions Jesus based his story on) but it need not be.

Effectively we are saying: believe, if you want, that the events strictly happened in that way. Now lets talk about what they mean. Equally, if you're quite sure they didn't happen quite like that, fine. Now let's talk about what they mean.

Importantly parable and parabolic language can make truth claims: we should not think of history as truth and parable as fiction and therefore less important. Indeed, this identification is one of the central characteristics of modern western culture. Both Biblical literalists and people who reject theism completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal accuracy and the latter see that the Bible can not be literally and factually true and therefore don't think that it is true at all. What both miss is the fact that parable can be profoundly true independently of its historical accuracy. Asking the parabolic meaning of Biblical stories is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether it happened in this way will likely lead one astray.

Mark's Easter story is very brief but he provides us with the first narrative of Easter. He does not report any appearance of the risen Jesus and the story ends very abruptly. His story starts with the women who saw Jesus' death and burial going to the tomb to anoint his body, concerned as to who will roll away the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. As they arrive, their question becomes irrelevant. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. They enter the tomb, somewhat tentatively we might guess, to discover a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. We generally interpret that young man as an angel, but even that word is loaded with countless unhelpful images of wings and harps and halos thanks to medieval artists. Let's be clear: an angel is God's messenger. Let's strip away the fanciful appearance. He says to them Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

Mark then tells us that the women were given a commission: But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Though Mark does not recount any stories of the risen Jesus the stage is nevertheless set for such events. Then Mark's story abruptly ends. So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. This ending was deemed unsuitable as early as the second century and so a second ending was added in vs 9-20.

Without denying any factual accuracy of the story, let's look at this section as parable. It is powerfully evocative.

* Jesus was sealed in a tomb, but the tomb could not hold him and the stone has been rolled away.

* Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. He is not here. Look this is the place where they laid him.

* Jesus has been raised. God's messenger tells the women this. Jesus who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God.

* God has said Yes to Jesus and No to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus.

* His followers are promised You will see him.

* The command Go back to Galilee means go back to where the story began, to the start of the Gospel.

What do we hear at the start of the gospel? We hear about the way of the kingdom.

Without the 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 a horrific theology: God's judgement means that we all deserve to suffer like this, but Jesus died in our place. God can spare us because Jesus is the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. It also leads to a skewed view of the current world where we conclude that the powers are in control and Christianity is about the next world, not this one.

Easter as the reversal of Good Friday, on the other hand, means God's vindication of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God, for God's justice and God's "no" to the powers who killed him, powers still very much alive in our world. Easter is about God as much as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's great cleansing has begun, but it will not happen without us in terms of personal transformation and political transformation: dying to the old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being. In short, being born again.