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The Resurrection of Dead Poets

Australian Country Landscape

Easter Sunday 2012

All theology needs to pass what I call the Bridge and Aeroplane Test. If I trust bridges to cross rivers, and aeroplanes to fly—if I entrust  my life to them—then I can’t legitimately apply the criteria of the pre-aeroplane age to my reading of the New Testament.

The Scientific Method, although immensely powerful and successful, clearly has limits to its competency. We cannot run repeatable, controlled experiments upon some aspects of life. However, one thing is clear,  even before science: people do not rise from the dead. We know that people who die do not come back in any recognisable, biologically based way. What the science of cells, and bodies, and brains does, is massively support this common sense observation.

This means that the stories of resurrection in the New Testament can only be read as stories which are trying to  overcome their own limits of competency; in this case the competency of language, or else, read as completely in error.

Paul’s treatment of the ‘resurrection body’ makes it clear that we are dealing with linguistic limitations. There is something here of a different order, beyond our cognition, which our time and matter based language cannot encapsulate. (Read 1 Cor 15 here)

35 But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 

If you have read this far, perhaps you have already decided that I am another one of those deniers of resurrection, who are dishonouring both God and Faith by my unbelief! On the contrary—I am honouring God.

What kind of faith embraces, and benefits from, all the reality of the modern world; ‘planes and bridges, and then, at its most critical point, at the central point of its reasoning, and the key point of its hope, abandons everything it knows to be true? Such a theology dishonours God! It deserves derision. Psychologically and pastorally, it may be understandable. Philosophically, scientifically, and theologically, it is indefensible to continue to interpret Easter through the lens of bodily, physical resurrection from the dead.

As I struggle with the limits of language, let me try to restate this in another way. When Mary, in the Gospel of John, embraces the risen Jesus in the garden on Easter morning (do not hold on to me, he said!) she is not embracing a body. But neither is she having some hysterical, unwell hallucination. There is a kind of poetry here, pointing us to something else.

It is our Christian duty not to flinch from the obvious, which is that people do not rise from the dead in gross bodily form; as a kind of resuscitation, really. What was perhaps historically defensible is now unsustainable. If we insist on ‘believing’ it, we have joined those who practise repeating six impossible things before breakfast.  Those who insist on that kind of physical resurrection, which is, in everything but name, actually a resuscitation, are the ones being unfaithful to the Faith, and to God.

But Paul says somewhere that if Christ is not raised we are of all people to be most pitied.

I agree.

This does not contradict everything I have just said. The problem is not the reality of resurrection. The problem is that we have let a particular worldview set our agenda, and shape our framing of the questions around resurrection.

We have always instinctively understood the unlikelihood of physical resurrection. The Sadducees bluntly denied it. (Mark 12:18) The notion of resurrection has been subject to scepticism from day one. The ancient world had bridges, after all.

All the rise of the scientific method has done, really, is add more cogency to what common sense suggested. We have always had trouble with the notion that a person would rise from the dead.

What we have swallowed in all this, is the assumption that science has the last word on the issue, and that science sets the boundaries of reality. We have let some philosophers of science say that unless something has repeatable, controllable parameters, it does not exist. (Technically, this is called Logical Positivism.)  At its extremes, this view says that unless we can measure it, and quantify it against manufactured standards under the International System of Units, it is not a legitimate subject of discourse; it has no meaning.

This is where some scientists and philosophers fail the Dead Poets Test. It is where people try to draw graphs to explain why poetry, or art, or love works! Common sense tells us that here, science has met the limits of its competency.

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

We recognise that the words of John Keating in Dead Poets Society are true. Yet we have swallowed the line of the sceptics and believed that if there is not resuscitation-resurrection, there is nothing. In its fear, and lack of faith, fundamentalist theology has made this illegitimate, incompetent science an article of faith! Too many of us have listened.

To be fair, many of us have not had the theological and philosophical tools to articulate what I have just said. It flies in the face of much of the spirit of the times. So we have trusted to our experience of resurrection, and talked about it in the language of resuscitative-resurrection, which is all we have had.

It is time to see, and articulate that the scientific dismissal of resurrection is, at best, ‘a bit quick.’ It has forgotten that it does not describe all of reality. It has overstepped its competency. It has failed the Dead Poet’s Test, and assumed it can measure everything. Perhaps its practitioners have not realised that they too, lack the words to articulate the deeper realities of life!

At worst, this dismissal of resurrection is not scientific at all. It is scientism, a doctrinal, ideological pretence and claim to owning the world, and its description. It is simply a competing religion, aiming to make sense of reality, and claiming that we are all there is. We, says scientism, are the Gods, because we describe reality, and ascribe reality. This bridge has always fallen down.

To this point, I have written at six times the number of words that comprise Mark’s Easter Day narrative, and have not yet even arrived to look at it! The reality is that we all approach the story with a great load of presuppositions and philosophies and theologies, even if we claim simply to ‘read the plain text.’ It is best to be aware of what we bring with us.

We owe it to ourselves, to our parishioners, if we are clergy, and to our kids, if we are parents, to cease fixating on the failed physical hypotheses of resurrection. We should not give in to the fears of frightened fundamentalism, or the posturing of arrogant scientism. We should instead trust our instinct that the resurrection narratives are talking about a reality.

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Science presents us with one testable hypothesis to which we should pay attention. The survival and persistence of the church, its thriving, and our sense of the reality of God and Jesus, could all be a death avoidance mechanism. So let’s look at our texts and see what is happening. Are they merely avoiding the horror of death in a vast, sophisticated mass neurosis? Should we simply toughen up and face the fact that we are going to die, and make the best of it?

This is an essay in itself, but I think the answer is, “No.” Mark constantly leads us towards death. There is no Life without death.

... those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (8:35)

John, the other gospel that is featured in the Year of Mark, goes in different directions to Mark, but the verse from a recent lectionary reading is thoroughly Markan

26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

The gospel is not about death avoidance, although some people clearly use it as a kind of shield of denial. There is no Life without death. The gospel calls us to face death, even embrace it.

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My working hypothesis as I come to Easter morning is that despite the apparent disaster of Good Friday, and the total loss of Jesus' death—even God deserts him in the end, there is something else going on. Will I find some intersection between my own confrontation with life and death, and the text of Mark’s gospel?

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But 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.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I accept the common wisdom that this is the end of Mark’s gospel.  The later endings are not Mark, and we have nothing missing. What he gave us, we have.

The clear implication of this ending, then, is that Mark does not regard seeing the risen Jesus ‘in the flesh’ as at all important. Perhaps it is even a distraction. Why else would he have him absent?

This document is not history in the sense of ‘this is what happened.’ It is gospel in the sense of ‘this is how we make sense of Jesus.’ That tells me that we are able to see Jesus, and be faithful to Jesus even though when we have been confronted with the fact of Jesus’ death, we have run away from it and said nothing to anyone. We are still able to be faithful, even though we are so unfaithful that we could not manage to tell anyone that we don’t think his death is the end. That’s what the empty tomb is about.

We are not being asked to make the extravagant claim that he was seen resuscitated-alive. Anyone can say that! Who is there to contradict us? No, we are being asked to make the claim that even though he is dead, his spirit goes on. Even though everything he claimed and lived for was utterly crushed and destroyed, even though all his followers fled, even though any fool can see the notion of the Kingdom of God is an idealistic fantasy that has been disproved over the centuries, we are asked to live the claim that the idea is still alive and viable. Frankly, resuscitative-resurrection is easier!

Mark makes it clear that all this will be done by people who are failures. These are the faithful ones.

All through the gospel, the disciples fail to understand. They are the source of betrayal. They are the ones who flee—even the last faithful women who come to the tomb. He does not hide this. If anything, he highlights it. Faithfulness is not only to follow Jesus to death. It is to continue through failure.

We understand that we do not save our lives until we have lost them. (8:35) Could it be also that we are not faithful until we have failed? We are not faithful until we have fled in the face of death and defeat, and then... then gone back to Galilee to seek him. Until we have failed and been defeated—been destroyed like him, in some sense—we have not truly understood what the gospel is about.

We should remember that the verse 7But 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,’  is a reference to something Jesus has already said.

26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.” 
28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ 29Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ 30Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’

Failure is the path to faith.

The young men in white are also suggestive here.

I said in the linked article,

Mark 14:51 “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.The young man escapes "by the skin of his teeth." He is naked. He has lost everything. In the Greek, it is implied that the sheet is a burial shroud. As Jesus is being taken to his death, his follower loses everything too. It is not too much to say that our death as disciples is described, and asked of us, in this metaphor.

Perhaps his nakedness is also a symbol of the shame of our failure. We too, would rather run naked than face the demands of faith.

I went on to say in that article,

The tomb was empty. There is no Jesus. "He has been raised." The women have gone to the place of the dead, and there are no dead there, only the living.

The young man has returned. He is no longer naked. He is clothed in robes of the sort worn by the religious elite. He is alive! He understands the secret of Jesus which has been hinted at and misunderstood all through the gospel. He is the one to listen to. He tells us the secret: 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.

This is a key point in Mark's gospel. Do you want to see Jesus? Go to Galilee. Galilee is outside the City. As at the beginning of the Gospel, you cannot see Jesus if you belong to the City. You must come out from Jerusalem. He does not use that word out casually. Jerusalem is the seat of power and religious respectability. It is the place of the elite. The elite do not know Jesus. To find him you must come out of Jerusalem and go to Galilee. He is also not to be found in the tomb. It is a living faith we are talking about- a life that is lived in Galilee by living the way Jesus would live in our shoes.

With his motif of going back to Galilee, Mark changes the lens through which we view Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is inviting us to discover resurrection for ourselves, rather than offering us a proof.

... you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

Last week I said, “There is no Easter morning resurrection in Mark,” to drive home the point of Mark's difference from our resuscitative flavoured imaginings. Despite this, Mark is clear that “He has been raised.” What is more, we are not to stop at his death and build some morbid, or heroic, ‘discipleship unto death’ around that.

Like all of the gospels, Mark is clear that the death has happened, and is in some sense ‘necessary.’ We cannot have Christian faith without fully embracing Jesus’ (and our) death. But he unequivocally states, “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

But his focus on resurrection is also unequivocal. It is not to be seen, believed and assented to. There is nothing saving in saying Jesus is risen from the dead. For, in Mark,  there is no Jesus risen from the dead to be seen.

He is, instead, to be discovered by going back to Galilee.

7But 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 a different kind of seeing. As I said last week,  “We can only have it by going back to Galilee to meet Jesus, back to where he works, and by doing the very things that killed him, and may kill us. We can live the answer by giving up our lives, by letting go of all our own hopes and dreams, and by living for the gospel. “

What Mark is pointing us to, is that if we will walk through Galilee with Jesus, we will find resurrection. We will find that new and different quality of life that John’s gospel calls eternal, the thing that Jesus came to give us; what he called life,  life in all its fullness. (John 10:10)

7But 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.’

In a sermon on this point earlier in the year, I showed the patterns of resurrection in Mark.

Do you hear the pattern? Resurrection, for us,  is happening in the gospel, not at the end. Resurrection is for everyday life. Jesus comes and takes us by the hand and lifts us up! If we follow Jesus; if we ask what he would do if he were 83 and had arthritis and bad knees, he takes us by the hand and lifts us up.... and we are able to stand...

For  Simon’s mother-in-law it was so she could serve. For the girl there is a deep, wonderful mystery of healing of womanhood. She was nearly 12, on the cusp of adult life and is raised up next to a woman who was called unclean, and separated from God, because of her bleeding! And there’s the little boy; who knows where he was going?

Well—we do know! He, and they, were going on with life. They were living their ordinary lives in Galilee. That’s where Jesus met them. The resurrecting Jesus.

And for us now, if we go back to our ordinary lives, to our Galilees at home and at work, and live like Jesus would live, we’ll meet the resurrecting and resurrected Jesus, too. We will be lifted up.... and be able to stand...

You can prove this!  You can prove it by trusting Jesus enough to follow him into Galilee, and live like he would live. And he’ll lift you up.

It strikes me that I picked up the idea in my childhood that Christmas was the beginning of the story of faith and that Easter was the highlight and the climax. At Easter, it was all shown and laid out in a massive victory over death. I see now that Easter is only the beginning of my life in Christ! The discovery of resurrection, and the living in resurrection, is all before me.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Note: I'm indebited to my colleague Alan Cadwallader for getting me thinking on some aspects of resurrection and failure in the Gospel of Mark.

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