The Son also rises

1st century tomb found under house in Nazareth

The fourth of the 39 articles, on resurrection, makes some key traditional affirmations, but also employs some problematic language in doing so. Here it is:

IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

Let’s begin by noting the positive affirmations. The article is explicit about the reality of the resurrection. It understands its significance as Christ not leaving behind human nature, but taking it into God’s own triune life in such a way that our created humanity is now in no sense alien to God, but may find its proper home in God’s eternal presence. It affirms the completion of that work with that brief “sitteth” and the place of Christ as final judge, when humankind is measured by the one who has shared our weaknesses.

There is, however, some curious phrasing, and an odd apparent omission. The differences in the relevant section of the Augsburg Confession highlight these:

[he] truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them, and to defend them against the devil and the power of sin.

First, the omission. There is no sense of activity by the risen and ascended Christ. When the article is set beside the Lutheran document, that “sitteth” looks remarkably passive. In one sense, of course, spelling anything out gets us into serious difficulties. We can only speak temporally of Christ’s “actions” in eternity, so that whatever we say will be inadequate. Nonetheless the experience in time of the Church is (at least meant to be) of the Lord of the Church active within its life through his Spirit, and the article is curiously muted about that.

By contrast there is the, to my ears frankly bizarre, expansion of the description of the resurrection. Christ “took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.” It is fairly clear that any contemporary discussion over whether the language of resurrection necessitates an empty tomb would have seemed truly bizarre to the framers of this article, yet I can’t help but feel the language goes too far in the other direction.

If the intent is to state in the strongest possible terms that what we truly are as humans has an eternal fulfilment in God, because all that makes us human is taken by Jesus into the fullness of the divine life, then I want to agree. But I honestly can’t get my head round this way of trying to say it, and think it is at best misleading.

In the longest scriptural discussion of the resurrection, Paul is at some pains to stress that one’s body (which seems to stand in part for one’s actual real existence) needs to be appropriately constituted for one’s domain. In that particular discourse, flesh and blood belong to this existence, but not to that of the kingdom (1 Cor 15). Paul concludes:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! [i.e. revealed secret] We will not all die, but we will all be changed (1 Cor 15:50-51 NRSV)

By contrast, the article seems to me so to minimise that transformation, that it is barely visible. Paul is relatively reticent about his affirmations, but is positive both that the earthly stuff of the body will be transformed into another spiritual kind of stuff, and that the transformed body will share an identity with what it was before. Just as for us, so for Jesus (or vice versa), resurrection implies both continuity and discontinuity. The problem with the article is that there is no discontinuity, just a temporary blip of death in the same body. It seems to me, here, both to state less than Paul (no discontinuity) and more than Paul (ascribing flesh and bones to the body).

The article is, of course, not alone in that. It can point to Luke’s resurrection narrative as a justification. “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24.39) This, however, is said by a Jesus whose bodily appearance is such that his followers are unable to recognise him in the normal way, and who can appear and disappear at will. The narrative makes the apparently straightforward self-description rather more complex. The intent is to emphasise the reality of Jesus’ presence, and that this is not a ghostly or visionary appearance by the dead as might be reasonably commonly experienced and narrated. It is less clear that it is intended to be the kind of theological declaration Paul is making. What Paul is wrestling with is how to express the difference between what existence means in our temporal state, with what existence might mean when framed by eternity.

It seems to me that some serious category confusion is going on between temporal and eternal existence. Heaven is not a place like earth, eternity is not a particular type of time. Christ is not confined to sitting around as though his Father’s right hand is some kind of waiting room for the parousia, but is present to and for the world in the working of the Spirit. Where this article seems to me to go in the wrong direction is in appearing to ascribe the temporal physical limitations of the incarnation to the ascended and eternal Lord. It gets its communication of predicates the wrong way round.

I can affirm with the article the transformation in history of the body of Jesus from death to life, leaving the tomb empty. I can affirm the identity of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate, to be the very same identity who was raised by the Father. But I must, I think, affirm with Paul, and against the article, that there is indeed a real transformation that takes place between the one and the other, and see in it the first expression of eschatological promise that the material created order will be transformed so as to be fully and finally fitted for a richer life transparent to and with the divine presence.

Jesus: resurrection, history and misplaced apologetics

Just before Lent I heard what I regarded as an unhelpful – to put it charitably – sermon on the Transfiguration story. It was unhelpful for several reasons. The preacher used Luke to “fill in the details Mark left out” and largely ignored Mark’s shaping of the story. He referred to the “eyewitness account we have” in 2 Peter, as though this was unproblematic, whereas it seems to me verging on dishonesty, to hide from “the laity” any knowledge that Petrine authorship is almost universally questioned by scholars.

Mosaic of the Transfiguration, St Catherine’s Monastery Sinai. Public Domain

Above all it was unhelpful because the preacher’s main aim seemed to be primarily, if not solely, to establish the historicity of the event. This fixation on historicity led to contrasts such as “not an hallucination, not a vision, but something that really happened”. (The possibility that it was a theological story was not entertained.)

I can understand the “not an hallucination” – a term we tend to use for those who are either ill or ingesting psychotropic substances. I can’t understand the “not a vision” since it is the testimony of almost all cultures but ours that visions are “real experiences”. What was it if it wasn’t a vision experience, and how does it being a visionary experience make it less real to its participants?

But leaving all that aside, what made this in my view a big problem, was that there was no real engagement with the summons to be transformed by following Jesus down the mountain and onwards on the way of the cross. The story of exaltation is sandwiched between Passion predictions, which is one of the reasons, I take it, that the Church of England messed around with the Revised Common Lectionary and moved this away from Lent 2 to the Sunday before Lent, to invite us to see Lent as walking this path of transformation. Listening to this sermon rather brought to mind Eliot’s line from The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets) “We had the experience but missed the meaning”.

Why do I bring that up at this end of Lent rather than at the start? Well apart from the fact that I wasn’t really blogging at the time, it is because I see the same temptation regularly surrendered to as Easter approaches.

It seems so easy for us Christians (teachers and preachers especially) so to give ourselves to an apologetic defence of the resurrection having actually happened, that we spend insufficient time and energy opening up the meaning of Easter. In doing so we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus from the entropy-busting event that offers new hope and life to everything that happens in history, into just one more thing that happened in the distant past.

I’m sure no-one intends a form of apologetic that reduces the resurrection to a past event. I think, however, that an over-fixation on establishing its historicity as a ground for faith can produce exactly that effect. I suspect it is more that finding faith in the risen Jesus is the ground for accepting both the historical and eternal reality of his being raised from the dead.

Making peace a strange greeting?

If you’d asked me how common “Peace be with you” was as a greeting in the New Testament, until recently I’d have said “very”. I’ve been surprised to notice that it is instead very rare. (Incidentally the same phrase – εἰρήνη ὑμῖν – occurs even more rarely in the Greek Old Testament.)

The basic idea occurs in combination with grace in all of Paul’s letters, but the simplest form of the greeting doesn’t. And in the gospels it occurs exactly four times. It comes once at the climax of Luke’s gospel. The disciples return from the Emmaus encounter, and are discussing it with those in Jerusalem, when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36 NRSV).

The other three all occur in the same story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room. Twice on his first appearance as he shows them the marks of his wounds, and once on the appearance to Thomas which is the climax of the account (and I would argue, the gospel). The first occurrence is in words that seem to echo Luke’s: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19)

(I leave aside for now the interesting thought that this is one of several texts which raises questions about either the relationship of John’s and Luke’s texts, or their relationship to some shared tradition.)

What I want to suggest is that for both of them “peace”, as they present it, is seen as a consequence of the story. It is fundamentally the reason for everything that has preceded and is itself the experience and gift of the resurrected one.

If “peace” was a reasonably common greeting, as it is today in the Middle East, then there is a sense that what the gospel does is make it strange, and make it fresh. When you have journeyed with Jesus through the story that has been read, you discover the meaning of a word you have used all your life for the first time.