Sunday, April 1, 2018

Resurrection: the Great Reversal

For me, a strong signpost of the resurrection is the record of the first encounters at the empty tomb. According to all four gospels, the women were the first to see evidence that Jesus was risen; three of the gospels record that women were the first to speak with Jesus; all say they were the first to spread the good news of the resurrection.
Women at the Tomb, Jesus Mafa

You can pass this over as just a small detail in a fast-paced story.

Or you can count is as one more hallucinatory scene in a mythical retelling that has little to do with actual fact.

Or you can wonder, as so many have: why would anyone trying to gain credibility for a strange new faith trust the story to the mouths of women?

As N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar, has noted in sermons, lectures, and books, the role of women in the resurrection story is itself part of the great reversal of Easter morning:

"And who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala. . . she is someone who has been cured of terrible multiple demon-possession. But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life. 
Mary Announces the Resurrection,
Mary Charles McGough, Minnesota, 1993
It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be accidental for John and the other writers. And I dare to say it cannot be accidental in the purposes of God."Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multiple spin-offs, that whereas before Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled – to put it mildly – with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous. "
In the great resurrection reversal, we are all set free from the second-place status ascribed to us by tradition, culture, or patriarchal law.

Jesus said “the truth will set you free,” and across the centuries resurrection people have experienced that reality in the face of prejudice and unjust laws and every voice that continues to insist freedom is for those born in the right place, with the right skin, the right body.

What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

How do we demonstrate – in our daily actions – our confidence that death is no longer the final word?

What does it look like to live so aligned with Jesus, so like him in word, deed, motive, that people who see us see evidence of resurrection?

The sermon on the mount is a good place to start. Looking back, it becomes clear that Matthew 6 is the proclamation of the Great Reversal: a new kingdom coming, a new way to live. Jesus says: Look, you do it this way. Turn it upside down.

Blessed are the rich and powerful? No – blessed are the poor and humble.

You love those who love you? Love those who don’t as well.

You worry? Learn to trust.

You want your own way? Want my way instead.

This reversal shows up in small ways through the gospels: tax collector Zacchaeus, stunned by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, decides to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he’s cheated.

Woman at the Well, Hyatt Moore, US
The Samaritan woman at the well starts her story afraid to draw water at the normal times, reluctant to talk with Jesus, a secretive woman burdened by shame. She ends her story sharing the news of Jesus with everyone in town; according to Orthodox tradition, she was renamed Photini, "Equal to the Apostles,” and went on to witness in Africa and Rome before being martyred for her faith.

Were there others whose lives demonstrated a reversal of intent, a radical, visible change? Certainly people were healed. Lives were redirected. The teaching and example of Jesus attracted plenty of attention.

But in the gospels, although Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, it wasn’t really visible in the lives of his followers. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were still wondering how to maneuver their way to power. Peter, self-focused from the start, was busy with his own off-beat agendas. Mary and Martha bickered about the proper role for a spiritual woman. All seemed convinced their own ideas, their own plans for the future, would somehow work better than whatever Jesus had in mind.

What Jesus had in mind, in his cross and resurrection, took their ideas, plans, hopes, vision of how the world should work, and shredded them. Completely.

Want power? Turn the other cheek. Again.

Want a future? Let your best hopes die.

Want to be an insider? Part of the gang? One of the club? 

Align yourself with the marginalized, forgotten, despised. Set your reputation with theirs. Claim their abandonment as your own.

The resurrection isn’t some sweet idea of spring and tulips and happy thoughts rising as the days begin to lengthen.

It’s God’s deep song of joy, rising up from the very darkest place of pain and grief: the story isn’t over. The hardest word is not the last. The thing you feared most is the best gift yet. The deepest loss is the avenue to deepest joy.

Beyond that, with the knowledge of that, everything changes.

The disciples, once fearful, found themselves courageous beyond imagining: singing in the face of imprisonment, merry in the face of floggings, buoyant when confronted with crosses, lions, vats of oil, stones, beheading, new instruments of torture. Their persecutors exhausted themselves trying to find more frightening forms of execution. And still the disciples, and those who came after, women, teens, thousands on thousands, went to their death rather than deny the truth they’d come to believe: Jesus was God himself, raised from the dead, bringing freedom for anyone who would follow.

The power of the Christ’s victory showed up not just in the courage of the new followers, but also in outrageous generosity. 

Resurrection people, from the start, have shared things with each other, and with those in need. Not just now and then. Not just when the harvest is exceptional, or the person in need a particular friend.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” Acts 3. 
The early resurrection people acted as if they understood, and could trust completely, what Jesus had said: we don’t need to worry about our own stuff. We can let go of the anxiety, the fear of scarcity, the competitive worry that if I feed you today, my family will go hungry tomorrow.

Justin Martyr, in one of the earliest histories of the church, wrote:

“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it.”

Clement, describing the change visible in any person who took on the name of “Christian,” noted:

 “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”

Clement, like the others who chose to live the resurrection, put a high value on love: your pain is my pain. Your poverty is my poverty. Your illness is my illness.

As Justin Martyr observed:

“We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.” 

We live in a time when the word "Christian" has become almost synonymous with judgment, exclusion, hypocrisy, privilege. 

If the truth of the resurrection is held in doubt, it’s not our apologetics that need attention, but our lives together as visible community of love, citizens of the promised new creation.  

As N. T. Wright explains: 

When you see the dawn breaking, you think back to the darkness in a new way. “Sin” is not simply the breaking of a law. It is the missing of an opportunity. Having heard the echoes of a voice, we are called to come and meet the speaker. We are invited to be transformed by the voice itself, the word of the gospel- the word which declares that evil has been judged, that the world has been put to rights, that heaven and earth are joined forever, and that new creation has begun. We are called to become people who can speak and live and paint and sing that word so that those who have heard it’s echoes can come and lend a hand in the larger project. That is the opportunity that stands before us, as a gift and a possibility. Christian holiness is not (as people often imagine) a matter of denying something good. It is about growing up and grasping something even better.
Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But the new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.
This draws from and adds to some earlier posts, including Resurrection WomenMay 12, 2012, The Great Reversal: A Resurrection PeopleApril 15, 2012 and Newness Beyond Our Achieving, April 7, 2013