Resurrection — a Process

The church’s traditional resurrection story just doesn’t make sense any more…  If I read it as poetry and metaphor, it is a beautiful story. If I am compelled to read it as history, it leaves me cold. And yet, I have to admit that there was something in the story that compels me to listen. I have joined with others in searching and reading – picking up fragments of the story from here and there, and then piecing our stories together in a coherent way. (Perhaps this is similar to what the early church did.) In this process, we have garnered the wisdom of many different people – that is, those who have learned to tell their stories in a different voice as good story-tellers do!

Our experience had been in conflict with the traditional story we inherited from the church.  That traditional story seemed upside down and we couldn’t stand on our heads long enough to make sense. Enter John Caputo, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, Herman Waetjen, Walter Wink, Richard Rohr, and others. As we engaged their stories, the scales started dropping from our eyes. The scales were the church’s overlays – containing some biases (anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic church, anti-science); favoring violence and empire over the poor, heavenly after-life over the here-and-now, individual salvation over distributive tender justice. It was as if we were being liberated from faith as a series of propositions to memorize.

James Alison (Knowing Jesus, 2012 ed.) suggests that the resurrection was “the irruption of a happening into [the first Christian’s] lives and one that could be experienced in a variety of ways.” (page 8) We tend to forget that the crucifixion of Yeshua must have had a devastating effect on Yeshua’s followers. From our vantage point of almost 2000 years of distance and from our mis-reading of the Christian scriptures as historical accounts, instead of witnesses to such a transformative irruption, we only seem able to ask the question “Did the resurrection happen, or not?” “Do you believe in the resurrection or deny its existence?”

Those questions assume resurrection to be either a simple historical fact or a hoax – a line in the sand determining who is IN and who is OUT! Deny the resurrection and you aren’t a Christian.

The resurrection is in fact a complicated process that developed over time. Alison suggests that understanding the process contains three separate movements:

First, the resurrection was seen as something that happened to Jesus. … Then, second, it revealed something about God … a new and completely unexpected and radical insight into who God is. … Third, the resurrection began to transform the lives of the disciples … to rewrite their lives from an entirely unexpected new vantage point.” (page 12)

I agree with Alison and I want to re-arrange the three movements. I believe that we need to begin with the transformation that was happening in the lives of those who had followed Yeshua. Something was afoot (an “irruption” forming inside them) as they began to put their lives back together in the Galilee – back to fishing, back to being spouses and parents, back to being neighbors and members of the local community. It seemed that Yeshua, who had died on the cross, would not leave them alone. The things that Yeshua had tried to teach them were now beginning to make sense. Those new understandings were changing them, causing them to view the world in which they lived in a new way.

The disciples began to see that Yeshua’s mission was based on an upside down, topsy-turvy understanding of the world grounded in “the intelligence of the victim” (Alison, chapter 2) – which I prefer to call the “wisdom” of the victim. Yeshua’s life and teachings opposed the victimization fostered by Rome and Temple. His death was not a ploy in some cosmic accounting system to balance out the sins of humankind or an exemplary display of God-infested moral courage. NO! His death was the result of his solidarity with the poor and the victims. Yeshua had become the iconic victim.

So, the irruptive experience of Yeshua’s followers after his death led to the realization that they were able to experience resurrection in their own lives because it had already happened to Yeshua in his life, mission, and death. Resurrection, in and through the disciples (and in and through you and me) only happens because resurrection already happened to Yeshua. The acknowledgement of Yeshua’s resurrection led the early church to a new understanding – namely that Yeshua was the long awaited messiah, but not messiah that had been  expected. Israel had expected a military messiah overthrowing Roman rule or an apocalyptic messiah riding in on the clouds to establish a new world order.

Now the disciples began to understand a little of Yeshua’s experience in the wilderness – namely, that he had sorted through Israel’s messianic expectations and realized that he was not called into any of those images. Instead, Yeshua experienced his calling as solidarity with the victims and was training of a cadre of men and women to join with him as God’s people in solidarity with the poor and the victims of society.

This led the early church to a radically new understanding of God, the third movement of this resurrection process. God was not some supreme ruler of the universe who dictated from afar. Instead, God was somehow much nearer – Yeshua called God “abba,” dad. God didn’t inhabit some ethereal heavenly abode. God was in the hearts and minds of all people – taking up residence in the ghetto slums, in the fields with migrant workers, in the overcrowded apartments of immigrants, in the cells of debtor prisons, in the people living under the oppressive regimes of bully dictators, in leper colonies, in the waiting rooms of public hospitals, …

If Yeshua is the iconic victim, God gives voice to the wisdom of the victim – a voice that bubbles up within me, irrupting into my comfortable life, calling me into solidarity with the victim, the poor. God’s “preferential option for the poor” is not a dictum, not a dogma, not a theological conclusion. Instead it is an insistence that effervesces within us, a ferment that changes our being from the inside out, a calling toward an expansion of my viewpoint, a nudge toward a radically new form of action. Resurrection is God’s invitation for me to live a life of love, in solidarity with the least, the lost, the last, and the left out.

Resurrection happens to Yeshua – raising him from the obscurity of a charismatic teacher and social rebel to being the iconic victim who lived his life and died in solidarity with the wisdom of the victim. Resurrection happens to God – raising God from a moral injunction to care for widows, orphans, and strangers into an internal presence that gives voice to the wisdom of the victim. Resurrection happens to us (individually and collectively) – raising us from narrow self-interest and parochialism to a life lived within the parameters of that wisdom that is being voiced within.

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