Easter Sunday in Year B

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B—2017-18

Resurrection of our Lord

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43

Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

 

The centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the life of the church means that the Easter texts provide occasion for an examination of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith and, with attention to the focus of these lectionary comments, their relationship to practices of care for creation. We begin with an examination of the nature of the Resurrection itself, prompted by recent provocative observations made by John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan in a recent article in the Christian Century. The visions of Christ's resurrection held by the Western and Eastern churches differ significantly, the Crossans observe, and the difference is important for the future of the human species on the earth. Based on wide examination of artwork east and west, the Crossans noticed a pattern: 

 

“The West celebrates the individual resurrection. Christ rises triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone. The guards of the tomb may be shown asleep or awake, but nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Whatever may be implied about humanity's future by this image of resurrection, it says nothing about humanity's past . . . . The East, on the other hand, celebrates the universal resurrection. Here Christ also rises triumphantly and magnificently—but he takes all of humanity with him. Iconographically, paintings in the East show Christ grasping the wrist of Adam. By the year 1200, he is shown grasping both Adam and Eve. Anastasis-as-resurrection is the liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ.” Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23-24.

 

Which vision is correct? The Crossans admit that it is hard to decide on the basis of biblical texts alone. No direct account of the resurrection exists. Weighing the alternatives, an individial resurrection is the more easily imagined occurrence, they agree, and thereby more readily available to support creedal faith. Within biblical Judaism, on the other hand,  “resurrection was always corporate, communal, and universal.” And for the Crossans, it counts heavily in favor of the Eastern view that it addresses much more powerfully human life in the public square (Crossan, p. 24).

 

Their travels and study have convinced the Crossans that “the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence.” Ever “since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago,” they write, “we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replace.” On this trajectory, they ask, “What can save our species from itself?” Of the two visions of resurrection, they suggest, it is the Eastern Anastasis that holds out most hope. In addition to its communal character, the Eastern tradition clearly portrays the risen Jesus as “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected.” Risen Lord though he is, he is also the non-violent Jesus of his crucifixion. “His halo is imprinted with a cross, the gates of death are flattened in cruciform position, he bears wounds on hands and feet, and he carries a processional cross.” This image points to the fact, the Crossans show, that his death by crucifixion was a mode of punishment that Roman rulers imposed on agents of nonviolent resistance. Following this Jesus, his companions would not have engaged in escalatory violence, not even to save him from crucifixion. The vision of Christ's resurrection in the Eastern church, the Crossans conclude, thus offers the better alternative for our “historical and evolutionary challenge” in the public square:

 

“The iconographic message is this: only nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilization can divert the human trajectory away from destruction and toward salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world. . . . As human evolution plays out, Christ's resurrection isn't just reality-creating metaphor for creedal Christians—it's for all of humanity” (Crossans, p. 25).

 

Our location in the Western tradition aside, the selection of texts for The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B calls for proclamation of this vision of a universal resurrection that offers hope for all humankind. And it does so, we argue, not only in the face of the challenge of escalatory violence  feared by the Crossans, but also with regard to the threat of global ecological devastation, which in our view is no less threatening to the future of our species, and a solution to it no less essential to their hope for “salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.”

 

Peter's sermon to the gentiles gathered in the Caesarean home of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (10:1) witnessed  “to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:39-41). Thus Peter's message also is about an “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected” Christ—again, by the Crossans' argument, an advocate for nonviolence—who reigns by God's ordination as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42)—in other words, of all humanity, past and present. And the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25 strengthens this expectation of universal resurrection in the company of a non-violent lord: Yahweh promised a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples, and destruction of the “shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (v. 6-8, emphasis added)—also, clearly a promise of universal rescue from death, if not explicitly by resurrection.

 

In addition to their shared view of the resurrection as universal and free of violence, these passages are linked in a second way, one which enlarges the scope of the vision to bring all creation into view:  each text mentions a meal, shared in the first instance by the disciples “chosen by God as witnesses” to the crucified-and-resurrected Lord, and secondly, the feast of Isaiah's prophecy. The latter, we suggest, by its association here in the Easter readings, confers eschatological meaning to the former. The feast of Isaiah 25:6-9 is drawn from the Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, as Jon Levenson explains, the background of which “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the powers of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” “Central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” Levenson argues, Yahweh,

 

like Baal associated with natural abundance and enhanced vitality, swallows Death, and we have here no hint that this victory will ever be reversed . .  . the life-sapping forces will at last be eliminated,  . . [W]hat is definitively defeated here is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil:  The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press,1988, p. 30).

 

Levenson further notes that the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh at Isaiah 26:19,“brings about a resurrection” which, while not “exemplifying a doctrine of general resurrection . . . of the sort that was later to become central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” nonetheless projects “a definitive victory of YHWH over Death and . . . the rich and joyous feast he provides to all nations in celebration of his long-awaited triumph” (Levenson, p. 31).

 

Thus the linkage of the texts before us provides for extension of the scope of salvation envisioned by the message of Jesus' resurrection, to embrace hope not only for a future, universal non-violent community of all humans, but also for an entire, restored creation within which they live. Easter is indeed an appropriate occasion for us to look forward to “a transformed earth . . . within a transfigured world.”

 

There are difficulties in the way of this reading of the texts, of course. In the first place, as noted above, neither vision of the resurrection, as described here, is a matter of actual historical reality.  The lack of any description of the actual resurrection constitiutes an absolute prohibition on speculation as to how the resurrection actually happened, a serious problem for appropriating the story's power in the public square in our scientific cultural context. The resurrection remains a matter of metaphor and imagination. And surely an assemblage of ancient myth may seem a weak structure on which to base such extravagant hope. But, as the Crossans point out, while the vision of universal resurrection that drove the creative work of Eastern Christian artists and theologians through the centuries is indeed a metaphorical, and not a literal, event, that doesn't matter, because “—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Crossan and Crossan, p. 24).

 

Yet again, even as a matter of metaphor, the assembled texts present a more serious complication for constructing a vision of the resurrection that embraces all creation.  As Levenson notes, the vision of Isaiah with its defeat of “all life-denying forces, natural and historical,” is in its biblical context embedded in a narrative that ties it to a particular locale: Yahweh hosts the feast “on the mountain,” that is, on Zion,  as the living God celebrates unqualified victory upon the temple mount. The temple, as Levenson shows, constitutes the earthly completion of the “great cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3.” In Rabbinic legend,

 

the Jerusalem Temple is depicted as the cosmic capstone that prevents the great abyss (tehoma) from rising again to inundate the world and undo the work of creation. In this current of Rabbinic thought, as in the older temple mythos of the Hebrew Bible and its near Eastern antecedents, the point is not simply that the two projects, world building and temple building, are parallel. Rather, they implicate each other, and neither is complete alone. The microcosm is the idealized cosmos, the world contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be, a powerful piece of testimony to God the creator, a palace for the victorious king. To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil. It is that ideal world which is the result of God's creative labors” (Levenson, p. 99).

 

 A “distinctive note” of these ancient themes reflected in Isaiah 25:6-8, Levenson observes, is an “eschatological urgency” that derives from the dissonance between the world affirmed in temple liturgy and the world experienced in quotidian life. “In the former YHWH reigns in justice, unchallenged, and abundantly favoring his faithful and obedient votaries, whereas in the latter Israel is a small and threatened people, lacking sovereignty and often even the respect of those who hold her fate in their hand, and fidelity to her religion brings no temporal rewards, but many afflictions” (Levenson, p. 32).

 

The emergent community of Jesus' followers undoubtedly shared a profound sense of such “eschatological urgency,” squeezed as it was between the hostile authorities that dominated Jewish life in Jerusalem and the legions of the Roman Empire. The difficulty here, of course, is that Zion with its temple is no longer for the followers of Jesus a place to participate in such a liturgy, whatever its relevance to their endangered situation. On the contrary, as the resurrection narrative of the Gospel reading from Mark shows them, Jesus and his followers are going out away from that sacred mountain. Indeed, the young man dressed in white who greets the two Mary's at the tomb expressly directs them away from Zion: “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.” It is emphatically not part of the resurrection message that the disciples are to remain in Jerusalem:  they will not see the risen Jesus there. Nor, we take it, will any later readers of the Gospel.

 

So what happens here to the cosmological vision of the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that riven from its temple location, the cosmic conflict is no longer relevant to the future of the community of Jesus?  Has the non-violent character of the community perhaps succeeded in banishing death from their midst? Not so, in  Ched Myers' view, not at all. In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The 'implied resurrection' at the end of Mark,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” As he explains in his Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401) this redirection by the young man dressed in white actually completes the great religious reversal that Mark narrates from the very beginning of his Gospel.   The Jerusalem temple was the economic, political, and religious center of the nation; its temple was the center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth were joined. But the story of Jesus begins out away from Jerusalem, at the edge of the wilderness, where God is first encountered in the waters of the Jordan. And as the story of Jesus' passion develops, the temple is utterly vacated of the divine presence. As Myers observes, there was

 

“. . . no voice from the clouds, only Jesus' voice protesting his abandonment by God; it is not the heavens that are rent (schizo), but the veil of the earthly sanctuary; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as 'Son of God,' but an enemy, the centurion.”

 

Even the body that had taken central place in the narrative of Jesus' action in Jerusalem, as Jesus offered himself in love to his disciples, even that is now gone—“he is not here” (Myers, p. 406). When the story of Jesus is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: the crucified body is risen from the dead. But also that body is absent from the scene: as Myers observes, in the course of Mark's narrative not only has Jesus' body replaced the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life, but now his absent body is in turn displaced by what Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone,” confirming “Mark's commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Myers, p. 406).

 

This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in fact deeply significant for our concern for care of creation. The mission of the crucified-and-risen Lord is to be worked out in the context of everyday life. Strong confirmation of this redirection is given, in fact, by the very figure who brings the message. Tom Mundahl reminded us in his comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent that the young man dressed in white at the tomb in the Gospel of Mark represents more than the eye can at first see. He is the blind man of Mark 10:47, who flees on the night of Jesus passion, abandoning his cloak; we see him again here at the end of the Gospel, newly dressed in the white robe of the Christian neophyte. His name was Bartimaeus, that is, son of Timaeus. Timaeus was a figure in Platonic philosophy who envisioned heaven and earth, as Mundahl summarizes his view,  as “a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision.” The formerly blind but now sighted Bar-timaeus represents the Markan rejection of this elitist view in favor of an understanding of how, in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, his followers are to be made newly aware of how radically different the presence of God is envisioned when Jesus is seen “in Galilee.” At the heart of Mark's alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

 

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4).  In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21) . . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25).  Jesus' teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11:24) . . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid., p. 443).

 

And it is there in the discipleship practice that the world, “contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be,” is manifest as “powerful testimony to God the creator,”  albeit without requiring “a palace for the victorious king.”

 

In its readings for Easter Sunday, therefore, the church properly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of its belief in the universal resurrection from the dead and its celebration of the pascal feast. And it does so without limitation with respect to the locus of this discipleship practice in the vicinity of the Temple of Zion or, which is perhaps the more important, larger point, any other, similar cosmic and political center. The departure from Jerusalem is not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel's faith and concern for creation so central to temple practice, then, as rather its appropriation for those followers who return to Galilee and, indeed, for the mission of those followers as they move from there across the Roman world. What happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh's holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God's presence from that precinct; but it was also the initiation of a new manifestation of that presence in the community of Jesus' followers. As Gordon Lathrop puts it, also with reference to the tombside redirection of the two Marys by Bartimaeus, it is now to be understood that

 

“. . . the actual history and death of Jesus have inaugurated the eschaton of God in this world. God's acting in justice and mercy for the healing of the created world could therefore be proclaimed in the gathered communities, in the power of the Spirit, by telling there the stories of Jesus and, reinterpreted through him, the very stories of Israel, and by eating there the eschatological feast of his gift . . . . This encounter with the eschaton, with what came to be called  'the resurrection,' was taking place in every local assembly, not in Jerusalem alone, or Rome alone, or some other “apostolic headquarter” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 , p.134).

 

This being so, it is precisely in those assemblies that we might look for the “world as it was meant to be,” not only a human community from which the plague of reciprocal violence is being removed, but also a new creation, a creation being restored because death no longer has dominion there.

 

If this relocation of the eschatological presence of God removes ties to the temple, it nonetheless imposes all the more strictly the practice of nonviolence. Indeed, domination by any means is excluded. Crucially, it even “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology,” Myers insists, “which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid., p. 408). The risen Christ remains the crucified-and-resurrected Christ of the Gospel tradition. What this means for the proclamation of the resurrection is that the reach of the life-giving and restoring presence of God in the creation can never be stopped short of its cosmic completion. It can never be permanently captured by the powers that control the sacred center of a society by whatever means, violent or otherwise. 

 

In the first instance, therefore, this message will be returned to the original  field of activity, Galilee, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem (Myers, p. 406). It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine)  the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus' company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p. 443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent of Africa, and even  across Asia. Before long, of course, the material needs of those communities will bring into ever fuller play the full scope of the eschatological realization of God's restoration of creation, as symbolized earlier in the temple's eschatology, but now focused on the life of the discipleship community. As with the temple, so with the community. It's practice and the world of its location belong together; now they are the implicate of each other, as temple and world were before. This is why the inclusion of the eschatolgical meal in the message of Easter is so significant. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark's social and economic experiment” means that

 

“it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site [the table fellowship] as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus' “body” (14:22-25) . . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is 'holy,' for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid., p. 443).

 

The meal is, as Myers has it, “for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (16:7).” But the community will not be sustained in any of its places of settlement if it is not also a meal that creates new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in the midst of which it is shared. 

 

Thus the spread of the discipleship practice congruent with the hope of universal resurrection repeatedly draws the community ever more deeply into the public square. If not in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, and eventually in Rome as the center of its Western Empire, the historical and natural conditions of life are taken up into the story of the way of Jesus. If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus' followers find themselves at home, then neither location nor dwelling are finally irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides the plain where Jesus preached and the mountain on which Jesus died and was raised, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard,  the city but also the wilderness, each of which offers again and again its special kind of participatory membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And when no longer Rome and its many extensions under the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Western church secured its attachment to the sphere of the planet Earth, then in each of its re-centering capitals, and eventually the United States of America, with its strong if merely metaphorical claim to be a New Israel, and a City set on a Hill. With each of these extensions, more and more peoples are drawn into the community of human life in the name of the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus, more and more of Earth is encompassed in the hope of creation's restoration and completion. And everywhere the meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human. But whenever any such center makes a claim to be the center in which God is uniquely, even supremely present, and defends that claim by violence that destroys the bonds of community and actions that result in the degradation of creation, it is time for the celebration of the feast to be moved once again to the margins, to the life-giving river in the wilderness, to the edge of the cosmos, and from there to move freely back into the midst of life. It is therefore crucial to the future of the human race that those margins, that wilderness, the infinite, limitless space, continue to provide place for the ever renewing manifestation of God.

 

Are we in such a time? The arguments about American exceptionalism in history may legitimately raise the question. The domination of a protestant Christianity over the civil religion of an American imperial leadership in the public sphere may suggest so. The attempt to exclude or at least limit other than Christian religious practice at that seat of military and economic power may also suggest so. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, when humans dominate all the biological processes of earth, and indeed weaponize the earth against its weaker and more vulnerable communities, both human and non-human, is it not time, if not already too late, to ask, whether our current coalition of religious, economic and political power will ever be able to deliver the fullness of both human and other-than-human life, as promised in resurrection vision of the Eastern church? Surely, it seems not. Very few, if any, of the  “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” have been removed from our centers of civilization. It is perhaps not surprising that for most followers of Jesus in this age of the great American Empire, it suffices for them to hope that they are among those who in the resurrection will be delivered, individually, or at best, in community limited by faith, out from this vail of tears. We have been making do with that limited vision of an individual resurrection for too long already. Again, let it be said, in the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, we all rise together, and that includes the communities of  non-human life, no less than the human species, or we finally rise not at all.

Dennis Ormseth

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