The experience of the two men on the Emmaus road really resonates deeply with me. Over the last few years, but in particular, the last 6 months or so, I’ve been awakening to new truths and a new appreciation of freedom. In many ways, I feel like I am better understanding the Bible now than I ever have before. In a blog poast a few weeks ago, I acknowledged that while I do indeed believe in the truth of the resurrection, I do not believe the stories of Jesus’ physical resurrection to be literally true. In fact, I feel as if I am only now beginning to really understand what the resurrection meant to the characters in the New Testament as well as how it applies in my life.
So if I don’t believe Jesus was physically brought back to life and literally walked out of that tomb, leaving it empty, what did happen then? I feel quite indebted to the Episcopal bishop, theologian and author, John Shelby Spong, for his scholarly work on Christ’s resurrection. In the interest of being honest, I feel like I also need to acknowledge that Spong is a controversial character in Christianity. Many Christian people, lay and academic alike, would strongly disagree with his conclusions. But many Christian people, lay and academic alike, would agree. It was actually a seminary professor who introduced me to Spong.
Controversy aside, Spong’s insights into Christ’s resurrection make more sense to me than anything else I’ve ever read or experienced. And so I’ll share today and let each of you make your own judgments.
In a series of online articles, Spong asks and attempts to answer the question, “What happened after Jesus died?” Clearly something transformational occurred. At the point of Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples are acting like a scared group of cowards. But shortly thereafter, they have re-claimed their convictions and are willing to die for their beliefs. So if I don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the dead, what accounts for this spectacular conversion?
In I Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about Jesus being raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. Now just a reminder here, when Paul refers to scriptures he’s talking about what we call the Old Testament since none of the gospels were yet written in Paul’s lifetime. “Third day” references are a recurring motif throughout the Bible and they cause a lot of confusion. Scholars have posed all sorts of theories as to what the “third day” is supposed to represent in ancient Jewish thought, but there really isn’t any consensus. In the Old Testament there are “third day” references in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Esther, 2 Kings, Jonah and Hosea (Wikipedia - Third day in the Bible). Now in the gospels, Jesus is made to say that “just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).” So maybe Paul was referencing Jonah. Or possibly he was lifting out a couple verses from Hosea, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up (Hos. 6:1-2).” Whatever the reference might be, Spong suggests the “third day” reference is most likely symbolic being that it made good sense for liturgical reasons as Jewish followers of Christ soon began meeting regularly on Sunday as the day set aside to remember Christ’s resurrection.
But Spong points to Jesus’ after death appearances as the more revealing transformational Easter experience. Paul and the gospels are all in conflict with each other as to when, where and how these appearances took place. I would again suggest that the discrepancies likely indicate these testimonies were not intended as a factual recording of history but as an attempt to communicate an experience which took them to a place beyond the reach of mere words.
So we have Jesus appearing to Mary of Magdalene in the gospels of Matthew and John. In John, Jesus appears for Thomas. In Luke, Jesus comes near to the men on the Emmaus road. In Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus also appears to the disciples. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, in the original gospel of Mark (minus the later additions of the shorter and longer endings for Mark), the man at the tomb says Jesus is going ahead of everyone to Galilee, but we have no actual recording of Jesus appearing to anyone.
The amount of time Jesus spent here on earth after his death is also in dispute. Matthew makes it sound as if we were just talking about days. John implies a minimum of weeks. Luke says Jesus stayed with us for 40 days.
But the earliest testimony about Jesus’ after death appearances and their timing is given by Paul in our text for today. According to Paul, Jesus appeared first to Peter and the 12 disciples. Next he appeared to more than 500 men and women. Then to James and all the apostles, though it’s a bit of a mystery who exactly would have been classified as an apostle in Paul’s mind. Last, Jesus appeared to Paul. Now it is commonly thought that Paul’s conversion experience occurred 1 to 3 years after the death of Christ. Jesus was killed around 33 C.E. and Paul converted to what became known as Christianity sometime between 33 and 36 C.E (Wikipedia - Chronology of Jesus). So according to Paul, it wasn't days or weeks, but quite likely a year or more.
I read a wonderful book the other week, a spiritual memoir by Karen Armstrong called, “The Spiral Staircase.” Armstrong uses a famous story from the Upanishads to illustrate her understanding of the Emmaus road text. The Upanishads are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion (Wikipedia - Upanishads). In the story, an old sage gives his son a chunk of salt and tells him to put it in a cup of water. In the morning, the salt has dissolved and the salty taste permeates every sip from the cup. One title for this story is, “From Nothing Becomes Everything”. I am reminded of John 12:24 - “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Spong makes the case, and I agree, that the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection was not a miraculous reversal of physical death, but was a gradual understanding of the way Jesus lived on in their lives, even after death. Whereas before the crucifixion, Jesus was their friend, a physical being they could relate to, see and touch, now, over the course of months and perhaps even years, Jesus began to come near to them and permeate their being and their surroundings and their understandings in a way that was inescapable and real and true. In those dawning moments of realization they experienced and understood Christ as risen, as eternal, as at one with God and this new awareness of Jesus‘ eternal presence in their life totally turned their lives around and set them off and running without ever looking back again.
I would like to now turn the remainder of my post over to Spong, as he is able to put my emerging understanding of the Easter experience to words in a way I am not yet able to do.
Spong writes, “When they tried of necessity to place that experience into human words, they called it “resurrection.” The Greek word, which they chose to stand for “resurrection,” however, was an inadequate word, for it literally means only “to stand up” (anastasis). That was as close as human language could take them to what they were trying to describe. They looked for other words. They called it overcoming death. They symbolized what they were trying to describe by suggesting that the veil in the Temple, which separated the faithful from the Holy One, had been split from the top down. One gospel writer, Matthew, likened it to the experience of an earthquake. Paul saw it as the breaking of those barriers that inhibit our full humanity from developing. Mark said that the impact of the life was so great that even a Gentile soldier at the foot of the cross pronounced him “Son of God.” Matthew tells us that all he heard the risen Christ say was: “Go into all the world.” Go, beyond your fears, your insecurities and your xenophobia. Go to those you have defined as different, as subhuman, and tell them that the love of God embraces all people regardless of how diverse. Out of Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, there has been created a new humanity. Luke hears this death-conquering Christ tell them they must be witnesses to his life-changing power in their homes, i.e. Jerusalem; in their immediate countryside, i.e. Judea; in the land of their deepest prejudices, i.e. Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth where a universal humanity will be known. People filled with the spirit, says Luke, will discover that there is no barrier of language or ethnicity that will divide them. John tells us that the death of this Jesus was his moment of glorification and that in the powerlessness of death in which the human drive for survival is at last escaped, God will be revealed and eternal life will be entered.
“The impact of Jesus’ life on his followers was so intense it simply did not fade after his death. They kept awaking to new dimensions of what he meant. No act of human cruelty could destroy his life, no barriers could withstand his love. Jesus embraced the outcasts, whether lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles or the woman caught in adultery. His life could not be contained within the boundaries of religion. He allowed the touch of the woman with the chronic flow of blood; he proclaimed that all religious rules had no value unless they enhanced human life. His followers found in him a life that reflected the Source of Life, a love that reflected the Source of Love and the being that reflected the Ground of Being and so they said “all that we mean by the word “God” we have experienced in him.
“His call was to enter a new consciousness, to become free of the boundaries inside which we feel we must live if we want to be secure; to recognize that beyond self-consciousness, there is a universal consciousness that we can enter and experience what Paul called “The glorious liberty of the children of God.” There we escape the uniquely human struggle to become and simply begin to be. That was resurrection. That was Easter and it was Jesus who opened this new dimension of life to them. In the power of his example, undiminished by his death, they entered that vision and experienced resurrection. In that moment, they began to see that God lived in them and that they lived in God and nothing was ever the same thereafter (taken from "Examining the Meaning of Resurrection, Part VI: Seeing Through a Glass Darkly; July 7, 2011).”