The Temple is relocated in the meal and the garden
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2015
By Dennis Ormseth
The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B
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 spare account of Jesus' resurrection in Mark's Gospel leaves its readers with more questions than answers as to what the event is about. As Ched Myers puts it, readers find themselves in a position like the disciples who had been with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and were warned on their way to say nothing of their experience until after “the Son of Man had risen from the dead”: “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what his rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:10). What actually happened here? And more specifically, what could this singular disappearance of a crucified body mean for care of creation? The women who came to care for his body are directed to seek him elsewhere. This redirection of the women to follow Jesus to Galilee confronts the reader with a question, Myers suggests, that can be answered only in the “historical moment of the reader,” not in the moment of the narrative: “Will we 'flee' [with the women] or will we [indeed] follow [to Galilee]? . . . Whether or not we actually 'see' Jesus again depends upon whether the disciples/readers renew their commitment to the journey” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401). The point is well taken. But what, exactly, does such commitment entail? What might going back to Galilee with Jesus actually mean? Does it mean anything for care of creation?
Its primary meaning, Myers suggests, is simply to return to the “the site of earthly practice” (Myers, p. 406). Galilee is the original field of activity, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem. This return, directed by the young man dressed in white, completes the great religious reversal that Mark is concerned to narrate in the 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 came together. In the passion narrative, however, that center had been 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. When the story is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: he is risen. The “resurrection' motif is situated not in heaven but in Galilee, the site of earthly practice (Myers, p. 406).
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.” It—or more properly, since Jesus lives, “he”--“he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (16:6-7).
This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in itself deeply significant for our concern for creation. The temple, as Jon Levenson shows in his Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1988), 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).
This view is in fact precisely what is presupposed in the alternative first reading for this Easter Sunday in year B, Isaiah 25:6-9, a text which we shall consider in a moment. But first we would underscore the significance of Mark's complete emptying of divine presence from the Temple and the immediate withdrawal of the resurrected Jesus and his community from Jerusalem. As Ched 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).
So what happens here to the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that that cosmic battle is no longer relevant to the community of Jesus? It might seem so in Ched Myers' view. 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 functions,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” But at the same time, he adds, it “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology, 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). 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).
Accordingly, the community is free to move out from the national cultic center of Jerusalem to embrace the people, first in their home place of Galilee, and then of the entire Roman empire, as the young man in white directs them. There they will tell the story of Jesus, with its remarkable ending, to both Jews and Gentiles.
In support of this view, one might cite the fact that in the text that serves as either the first or the second reading for this Sunday, Acts 10:34-43, Peter proclaims Jesus the “Lord of all” in whose name God welcomes anyone “in every nation . . . who fears him and does what is right.” The specific mission of the disciples is described simply as testifying that Jesus is “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” from whom, as “all the prophets testify,” everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:42-43). The sermon indicates that the scope of the mission is universal, but clearly focused on human sinfulness and forgiveness. The cosmic scope and concern for the creation's vitality of the temple cult appear nowhere on the agenda. The same point can be made with respect to the alternative second lesson, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where the apostle Paul is primary concerned to trace transmission of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The situation is starkly different, however, with respect to the alternative first reading from Isaiah 25:6-9. The passage is drawn from the Isaiah Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, the background of which, as Levenson explains, “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the power of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” The feast described as taking place on Yahweh's mountain—that is, on Zion –is “central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” with respect to which the adversary being overcome is “Death:” 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 lifesapping forces will at last be eliminated, as the living God celebrates his unqualified victory upon his Temple mount . . . [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 (Levenson, p. 30).
In support of this view, Levenson notes that at Isaiah 26:19, the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh “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).
Accordingly, in its assignment of this text for reading on Easter Sunday, the church clearly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of the feast of victory and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But it does so without qualification with respect to the locus of these works in the Temple of Zion: what happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh's holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God's presence from that precinct, but also the restoration of that presence in the resurrection of the person of Jesus. This suggests to this reader that the departure from Jerusalem is therefore not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel's faith and concern for creation so crucial to temple practice, as rather its appropriation for the followers in Galilee, and, indeed, for the mission of the followers of Jesus as they move across the Roman Empire. That community will very soon find itself in the very situation for which the experience of worship in the Temple was found by Israel to be so very important, indeed, a situation similar to that in which the Isaiah Apocalypse was written. As Levenson observes, a “distinctive note” of the reworking of ancient themes in Isaiah 25:6-8 is an “eschatological urgency” that
. . . derives from the dissonance between the
world affirmed in 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).
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 Africa, and even across Asia. But equally important would be some means of giving material embodiment to that word, comparable to, although very different from, the temple which had anchored the experience of God in the land of Israel. 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).
However valuable this insight, Myers is mistaken in one aspect of his characterization of this meal. While it is true that the meal is, as he has it, “a meal 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),” the community would not have been sustained in any of its places of settlement had it not also been a meal that created new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in which it was shared. 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 which shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human.
Gradually the community would find itself needing to make that fuller embodiment part of its regular telling of the story of the resurrection. Indeed, we think we see that need rising and being met in the other texts appointed for this Sunday. In his sermon to the gentiles, for instance, Peter recalls that “God raised [Jesus]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.” The memory of eating with Jesus has special, enduring importance, a significance emphatically underscored by the reading of Isaiah 25:6-8. It could not have been long before the church saw that here was an essential prophetic voice testifying to what resurrection was about: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” The eschatological feast on the mountain of God, it seems, will become important as the new locus of the destruction of “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations,” and the wiping of tears “from all faces.”
If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus' followers find themselves, then neither location nor dwelling are irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides 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, each of which offers its special kinds of membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And of course one must not neglect the garden: the story that seemed to end in the garden where there was a new tomb begins anew, the alternative gospel reading from John 20 informs us, also in a garden, something to which the author seems to want to call our attention with his story of Mary mistaking Jesus as the gardener. Was Jesus not the gardener of the new Eden of creation, as later Christian legend would have it? Was there not something appropriate to the suggestion by a Jewish rabbi that it was “the gardener, looking out for his cabbages that morning of the first day of the new creation? (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 990, for the source of these legends). If the garden is, since Eden, the place of betrayal, it is also the place of restoration; the place of death becomes the place of new life. Can we not hope that this can be said for every garden, if the God we meet in the meal is not only the Creator of all that is, but the One who in Jesus' death and resurrection swallowed up Death?
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288