The Easter Moment: Drawing Conclusions

The Easter Moment: Drawing Conclusions

Bishop John S. Spong  (2005)

Armed with historical clues, we can speculate on the moving drama that came to be called the Resurrection.

We have analyzed the biblical texts that purport to tell us the story of the resurrection. We have noted the gap of 40 to 70 years between the Easter experience and the gospel accounts. We have identified the places in the narrative where exaggeration entered the texts, where miraculous elements were heightened, and where history forced new details into the ancient story.

Next we put on detective clothes, got out our spyglasses, and searched for clues that might carry us closer to that original burst of life-changing power. Using a series of questions that begin with the familiar words of where, who, when, and how, this study led to these conclusions:

Whatever the Easter experience was originally, it dawned in Galilee-not Jerusalem.

Simon, later to be called Peter, stood uniquely in the center of that experience.

Noting the time-sequence gaps in the gospels, we suggested that “three days” was a symbol, not a measure of time. This opened the possibility that months may have separated the day of the crucifixion from the dawning of Easter.

Finally, we noted the subjective quality of the Easter narratives, including the fact that in those texts only believers ever see the risen Christ. A close connection also seems to exist between their ability to see and the interpretive act of remembering Jesus during the liturgical meal. The food references are constant. “He was made known to us in the breaking of bread.”

Armed with these clues, we are ready to begin the speculative re-creation of the drama that came to be called the resurrection.

Jesus was arrested. That occurred, the text suggests, in the middle of the night. At that moment the disciples fled. A note in John’s gospel, clearly written after the fact, tried to explain their desertion by having Jesus predict it. “You will all be scattered each to his own home,” he says, in a reference echoing the book of Zechariah, which seems to be the book that shaped the entire passion story more directly than people have previously imagined. The disciples fled, perhaps in groups of two or three, but they all headed for Galilee, their home. Galilee was a seven- to 10-day journey from Jerusalem.

The route the disciple band traveled to get to Jerusalem had been through the desert, east of the Jordan River, so they could avoid the dangers of Samaria. I wager they returned almost instinctively by the same route. Perhaps Simon lingered long enough to see if his worst fears were realized, but when he found himself accused, and denied that he ever knew this Jesus, he decided to get out of the city as quickly as possible. By the time the crucifixion had done its cruel worst, the disciples were no longer in Jerusalem. I think it is obvious that Jesus died alone. It is interesting to note that not until the late ninth or early 10th decade did stories enter the tradition that placed the disciples in Jerusalem for the Easter experience.

The first stop for Simon, I believe, was the house in Bethany where Mary and Martha lived. This house, earlier texts suggested, had been Jesus’ headquarters during the last week of his life, before he and the disciples went to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Not only was it on Simon’s route home, but depending on when he left Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, he did not have long before the sun went down and the Sabbath began, when Jews are forbidden to travel. Bethany was a safe haven where the Sabbath could be observed. So I suspect Simon got no further than Bethany on the first day of his flight. There he stopped, and there he heard the news, confirming that Jesus was dead. There this little group of followers mourned amid the other emotions that always accompany grief: anger, fear, despair and guilt. I suspect that this was when the details of everyone’s desertion and Peter’s denial first were shared by those involved.

Normal custom dictated by the Palestinian elements was for travelers to walk only from sundown until the pitch black of night sent them seeking shelter. Then, at the first light of dawn, they would journey until mid-morning, when the sun drove pilgrims to the shade. So I suspect Simon was on his way toward Galilee as soon as the sun sank on the Sabbath. Perhaps a week later, he arrived in Galilee, where he could feel the security of his home.

Over the next several days the others arrived, still traumatized, still fearful, still grief-stricken and immobilized by their bereavement. So they did, I suspect, what all grieving people do: They processed their feelings, recalled final memories, replayed the tapes of their relationship with Jesus, and tried to make sense out of what they had experienced. There was sufficient anger and blame to go around, and it was shared, not always helpfully, as each sought to save his own reputation. Days passed, and then weeks. The thick darkness that engulfed them did not seem to lift.

Finally, economic necessity joined with the debilitation of unresolved grief to force the members of this group to resume their work and put the Jesus experience behind them. Simon had been a fisherman, as were most of the other disciples. So back to the fishing trade they went.

Fishing on the 12-mile-wide Sea of Galilee was done in small boats, usually with a crew of four. I suspect that this particular crew was made up of Simon himself, his brother Andrew, and the two sons of Zebedee. It was still important to them to be closely associated with those who had shared their defining life experience. The best catches on the lake were just before dawn. Without refrigeration, fishermen had to market their catch each morning to be eaten at the primary meal at midday. So the fishing boats would go out in the night and return at dawn.

As Simon thought about these familiar phrases, it seemed to him that the prophet was describing Jesus. At the very least, Zechariah was describing a view of God that was like Jesus’ views. A God revealed in defeat is a God made known not in power but in the act of giving love. This is a God whose presence did not stop at the boundaries of human fear or the quest for security. This was the God the disciples had seen in Jesus. Even his death could not invalidate their experience.

It was a boring job, drifting endlessly on a calm sea with nets dropped or at anchor in a more turbulent sea. So the crew had lots of time to talk. Jesus remained the content of their conversation. The Sea of Galilee was filled with memories. Jesus had been so intensely present in their lives, and now he was so intensely absent. Jesus had revealed to them a meaning of God that was different from what they had ever known before. God was like the father who welcomed the prodigal son, like the widow who searched endlessly for the lost coin, like the generous steward who paid people who worked one hour the same wage as those who had contracted for a whole day. He showed them a God whose love did not stop at the boundary of their own love or at the border of their tribe, their prejudice, their sense of superiority, their moral judgment, or even their religion.

The God that this Jesus revealed was a God of infinite life, love, and forgiveness who called them to be new people. Yet now he was dead. This meant, they thought, that God had said an emphatic NO to all that Jesus was. Had his death not been agreed to by the high priests, the people who spoke for God? They had judged him to be blasphemous, to be guilty of claiming more than he could deliver. But how could this be? How could God say no to love, to life, to forgiveness, to wholeness–and still be God? That was their inner turmoil. Nothing fit together. Nothing made sense.

As the weeks and months passed into the fall, the most joyous of the Jewish Holy Days, Tabernacles, loomed. This harvest festival, celebrated in Jerusalem, was shaped by readings from the prophet Zechariah. These readings were as familiar to Jews as the Christmas story is to Christians. So these readings entered Simon’s mind and his conversations as Tabernacles approached. It was Zechariah who had written, “Behold, your King comes lowly, riding upon a donkey.” It was Zechariah who said, “The Shepherd King of Israel is betrayed for 30 pieces of silver” and who portrayed the whole city of Jerusalem as “looking on him whom they pierced,” mourning for him as one mourns “an only son.” It was Zechariah who had written that when the day of the Lord dawns, there will no longer be those who buy and sell animals in the Temple.

One night in the early fall, Simon and his mates had a particularly good catch. They were happy as they dragged the fish ashore. They built a fire, placed some of their catch on the grill, brought out the bread from the boat, and prepared to feast. As was his custom, Simon took the bread, said the ceremonial blessing, broke and distributed it. In his blessing, he likened the bread to Jesus’ broken body. Both, he said, were meant to give life.

Then it happened. A light went on in Simon’s head. It was as if the heavens opened and so did Simon’s eyes, and Simon stared into the realm of God. There he saw Jesus as part of God’s being and God’s meaning. It was not delusional. Death could not destroy the one who made God known. “Death cannot contain him. I have seen the Lord!” was Simon’s ecstatic exclamation. Then Simon opened the eyes of the others to what he saw. Each of them grasped this vision, experienced Jesus alive, and were themselves resurrected. That was Easter. It was both objective and subjective, but above all it was real.

I can get no closer than that. But that is close enough for me. Easter is real because God is real. Resurrection is real because God is not bound by mortality. Life beyond death is real because those of us who live inside God live beyond the boundaries of our own mortality.

There is always the possibility that we Christians are deluded–but I do not think so. I trust the God revealed to me by Jesus as the source of life, the source of love, and the ground of being–and I shall worship this God by living fully, loving wastefully, and daring to be all that I can be now and forever. When I do so, I will know the truth and power of the resurrection.
Read more: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2001/04/The-Easter-Moment-Drawing-Conclusions.aspx?p=2#ixzz1U5cGQNkz

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