The gospels give us two groups of narratives which provide us with a glimpse onto the resurrection. There are those narratives when people find the empty grave, and those where the resurrected Christ meet them. See for example Luke 24: First a group of women come to the grave, finding it to be empty, with messengers from God announcing that they shouldn’t look for the living among the dead, after which Peter run to the grave, confirming that it is indeed empty. Then two people are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are met by a stranger, a stranger whom they discover to be the resurrected Christ, just as this Christ disappear from their sight.

Modern debates about the resurrection, to my mind, don’t seem to focus on any of these narratives, but rather construct, from all sides of the popular debates, a new narrative not told by the writers of the gospel: the narrative of what happened inside the grave.

Take any construction of two sides to a popular debate on the resurrection, call them “conservative vs. progressive” or “fundamentalist vs. liberal” (both constructs of tensions in the church which I believe oversimplify the reality of real communities of faith) and you generally find a debate raging on: “could a body come back to life?” The question of what happened inside the grave. From various theological and scientific presuppositions we speculate on the missing narrative, the narrative inside the grave. Did the blood miraculously start to flow again? Was the body stolen? Was there a ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ which rose out of a dead Jesus? Did this Jesus simply take the blankets of from his body and face and walk out?

These are not modern questions, but have been the subject of speculation for many centuries, and particularly in the first centuries of the church. But the gospel writers refuse to answer the many questions. The gospel writers, as authors of their books, have the power to reveal information hidden to the characters. They sometimes reveal information on what Jesus was thinking, or what he prayed when no one else was with him, so they are willing to present the reader with information which no one could actually know (in the technical sense which we modern people like to connect to the word ‘know’). But when it come to the grave, they don’t dare walk onto that ground.

So we are left with two narratives: The grave is empty. The resurrected Christ has appeared to Peter, the woman at the grave, the travelers to Emmaus.

Are we allowed to dare walk into the grave, attempting to guess what happened? I would say yes. I say yes simply because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. Simply because I think that the God which we find in the Bible is fine with our questions, our attempts at sense-making, our attempts at giving a coherent or rational (sometimes both, sometimes these two seem to exclude each other) argument for our beliefs, or the tradition within which we live.

But I do think we miss the point if our debates and conversations about the resurrection end up as a technical conversation about what happened within the grave. The grave is empty. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what the gospel present us with. The resurrected Christ, the one with whom we have been resurrection (following the (post)-Pauline writings in Collosians), has appeared to his followers, and this changed their lives.

I want to dare say that if we move our conversations out of the grave and into life, away from what happened in the grave and into what should happen to those to whom the resurrection Christ appeared in their lives, we might find a conversation which both bind us together and lead the church into becoming salt and light. This, to my mind, is a conversation we are in dire need of. What is the implication of the resurrection for the economy, the ecology, for a world in which death, not life, is the reality which face a very large proportion of this planets inhabitants. If our belief in the resurrection don’t translate into a belief that the death facing us can be overcome (and leaving people to die because we believe that they will go to heaven is not believing that death has been overcome, but rather a firm belief that death has won, that opposing death is impossible), then I struggle to call it faith in the resurrected Christ.

This is the sixth year that I’m blogging on the resurrection on resurrection Sunday. Earlier posts can be found here.

This blog doesn’t have a lot of traditions or rhythms. Just the one, that wasn’t planned, but sort of “happened”. Once a year, on (or close to) Easter Sunday, I blog about the resurrection. The first post was simply because I had to get some stuff out of my system, but now it’s the one rhythm that I try and keep to. So this time around I continue reflecting on this key theological concept, and I continue to find myself within the contemporary debate, attempting to move beyond the impasses which we have created.

In my own context, and that of many others in the various white Western parts of the world, the debates on the resurrection typically gravitate towards questions of historical reliability and speculations on biology rather than theological implication. This is a gross generalization I know, but just listen my out for a moment before condemning the statement. We turn to Wright or Crossan, but rather than actually engaging their texts in all their complexity (something which I can’t claim to have done), we like to quote them to justify our various positions on whether the resurrection was a historical event. And the debate continue, and the historians doesn’t seem to provide us with an end to it.

We try to work around it by turning to biology. Or we turn to biology to make sure the extremity of our claims don’t go amiss on our hearers. We do the biology trick by adding a bunch of descriptions onto resurrection. Jesus was not only resurrected, but it was a physical, bodily, historical, literal resurrection (and yes, I’ve heard this exact four strung together within the debate, although I’m still in the dark on exactly what is being implied with each, and how they relate to the various resurrection narratives of the Bible). Or we do the biology trick to the other side by explaining that it was not any of the above descriptors, or not certain of them, and then adding others such as “spiritual” or “metaphorical”. Although these words do help in pushing us towards theology, they are not quite what I’m moving towards.

What historians do not deny is that we have a whole bunch of resurrection narratives from the ancient world. They differ on whether all of them, or all but one of them, can be discarded. Within the church we’ve been confronted with this by various smart young catechists asking us why we make such a big deal about the resurrection of Jesus but ignore the other resurrection narratives in the Bible. Various well-meaning pastors has then mumbled something about how the other resurrections was only temporary and the people dies again, but Jesus’ resurrection was permanent.

But here is the thing: The Bible doesn’t consider resurrections to be a once of event (if you take the book literally that is). It does consider one particular resurrection narrative to be of special importance. The supernaturalism of it however doesn’t seem to bbe the biggest issue. Rather, the bigger story within which it is found is what gives meaning to it.

Many apologists have made claims about how we wouldn’t have worried about what Jesus said if it wasn’t for his resurrections proving that he is God. But I say, the early church wouldn’t have worried about the resurrection if it wasn’t for what Jesus said and did. For who he was. The fact that it was Jesus that was resurrected was important for the early church, not the fact that they has a circus-act of resurrection to dazzle the world with.

So where does this line of thought take us? Well, today the resurrection is a reminder that God chose the words of the propher from Nazareth above the power of those who send him off to be crucified. The resurrection is primarily a theological claim, rather than a historical or biological claim, saying that the God was found in the words of him who said that the poor and those who suffer are blessed, rather than with those who are powerful and control others. It is the claim that in Jesus the time when justice will come and injustice will end has been initiated, and that the death on the cross didn’t bring and end to this force for justice, this voice talking about the kingdom of God.

If today we would find ultimate proof that one of the Ceasers from the first century was also resurrected, put as many descriptions as you want before this, would that be proof that Ceaser was lord? That God is on the side of the Ceaser? No. Because the resurrection is only the final confirmation of the continuation of a much longer tradition: that God is the God of the widows and orphans, the God with an eye for the little things in life, the God of those who were cast out. The resurrection can theologically only give meaning where it is a confirmation of this. No amount of historical evidence or biological claims can bring any proof that there was a resurrection event that pointed to God if it isn’t a confirmation on a life which was in line with the God that was the God of the slaves, rather than the God of the Pharaohs.

Is this good history? No it isn’t. We need good history, but this is not it. This is theology. It is claims about God, about the world, about how we choose to interpret reality. About how we choose to hope, not because of the historical proof we have, but sometimes despite of it. This is faith. Claiming that the gods of this world does not have the final say. That not even the cross can have the final say. Most probably a few debates will resound again this year, or has already by now, about this celebration that the church have on Easter Sunday. But let us pray that we will not be pulled around by historical niceties but confess our deepest theological convictions, faith commitments, words that say much more about the meaning this celebrated event has for lives today than about the proof of a supernatural event many ages ago.

Let’s remember that we confess faith not simply because there was a resurrection which was kind of wonderful and strange and out of this world, but because the one we confess to be the resurrected lord is the one who preached about the kingdom of God. Jesus gives meaning to the resurrection, not the other way around (or at least, this year, on resurrection Sunday, this is the way around which I’d like to consider it, but we won’t exhaust the long tradition of reflection on this particular event in one blogpost, or in one year of celebrating Easter).

Last year’s reflection on the resurrection, where links to previous reflections can be found.

Resurrection Sunday has always been a day of theology for me. In 2007 and 2008 I wrote blogsposts on this day reflecting on the resurrection, and in 2009 a few days later. But on this resurrection Sunday what is called for is not a philosophical reflection on understanding the resurrection, today we need the resurrection to come alive in South Africa. Today, resurrection Sunday calls for a response of public theological nature.

Last night Eugene Terre’Blanche, well known leader of the AWB, the most right-wing white party in South Africa, was murdered. All reports so far confirm that this was because of a dispute over salary, and done by two of the workers on his farm. However, the first 12-18 hours after the news came out has seen a renewed surge of racism and even calls to arms in South Africa. President Zuma, as well as many other important voices in South Africa, has called for calm reaction, and high profile figures from the ANC government, such as Genl. Cele and Minister Mthetwa, is involved to help things remain calm.

However, I have personally experienced how the comments being made by Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League, and the prominence given to him by the media, has caused a renewed anger among even very open-minded and positive white South Africans. And with his “Kill the Boer” case fresh in the memories of South Africans, this event can easily be made into a political moment which didn’t underly the murder. Whether it is the call to arms from white supporters, or the insensitive “he deserved it” from his opponents, it’s not helping South Africa.

This event can be a trigger to resurrect the AWB. To give reason why Terre’Blanche’s hope for a white homeland should be resurrected. To kill so much of what we have worked for in uniting the races of this country. But on the day of the most important festival of the largest religion in the world, also the largest religion in South Africa, and the religion to which both Mr Terre’Blanche and the leader of the ANC, President Zuma (although in very different forms) subscribed to, is it possible for a country, whether Christian of not, to hope for life to come out of death? Is it possible that in the face of this death, people from different races can come together to mourn another murder? To give condolences to a family who has lost a father, to them who have lost a friend?

Can this be the moment where black South Africans can say that it is possible to forgive? To repeat what President Zuma has said over and over again, that in this country people of all races must come together to build this nation. Is it possible for white South Africans to state loudly that we will not put our hands to the gun. We will not politicize every crime in this country. And we will speak out with the strongest possible critique against those who will use this tragic event to pour fuel on racial hatred in South Africa.

Because however you understand the resurrection, and however you celebrated this day, I believe today the question of whether the resurrection has meaning will be tested on how we approach the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche.

I haven’t really blogged on Easter this year, as I usually do (2007, 2008), but I’ll be preaching on the Easter events again this Sunday, since I know that most of the kids sitting in that service wouldn’t have been to church over Easter weekend. But my preparation is a struggle! I know the kids in this service: They know nearly nothing of the Bible. Many haven’t been to church for a number of years now. And they are very prone to fundamentalism. Their fundamentalism worries me. But broader than the fact that I need to preach to these kids, I also need to find a way of talking about the cross; for myself. This has obviously not started today, but I’ve been theologizing about the cross probably for at least 9 years now, since the first time I led a small group of 13 year olds at a camp.

In the American conversation I notice a lot of talk about atonement. I found the fact that I don’t share this love of talk about atonement a bit strange, untill I realized that the Afrikaans translation of this word wasn’t one I ever heard much in church. Rather, we talked about salvation. But similar issues seem to be at stake.

If I’d ask the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” to a group of informed church members in our church, I’d probably get something in the line of the following: “God intended it” and “For our sins“. But my change in talking about the crucifixion isn’t that much a critique against these answers, but rather a reading of the Bible which calls for something else. I try and find the answer to the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” in the gospels, especially the synoptics, and I use historical and social scientific research as a lense in reading this.

Piet Meiring always talk about chapted 13 of Transforming Mission as vintage Bosch. If you want to know what Bosch thought, read chapter 13, he says. There Bosch the theologian moves to the background, and Bosch the preacher emerge, so to speak. I was just reading the part on salvation in Transforming Mission, and here Bosch does something similar than in chapter 13. His argument in both these parts is that we need to understand salvation and mission within the comprehensive christological framework – “his incarnation, earthly life, death, resurrection, and parousia” (p399). He explains the need for doing this with saying that

  • the Greek patristic tradition was orientated to the incarnation (I’ll have to read on the Orthodox church again to be able to point to the implication of this)
  • Western mission was oriented towards the end of Jesus’ life, his death on the cross. That tend to get us into a purely early Pauline understanding of salvation which focus on an apocalyptic event in the future
  • a Third model focused on the eartly life and ministry of Jesus, it was an ethical interpretation of salvation. According the Bosch this made Christ redundant in the end.

I think there is value in this comprehensive approach Bosch propose. However I’m thinking more and more that we should reorder this comprehensive narrative.

I love the historical Jesus writers. I really do. I’ve been reading parts of Nolan and Crossan again over the past two days. Bosch also liked the historical Jesus research, as can be seen in his approach to Transforming Mission. In writing Transforming Mission, he started out with the historical research on Jesus and the early church, and then moved onto three paradigms of mission found in the early church, this he found in Matthew, Luke and Paul. The historical Jesus research  help us in understanding Jesus, the person who lived and walked and talked in Galilea and Judea roundabout 27-33 AD. Who was crucified. Historical research has difficulty talking about the resurrection, not because of unbelieve, but the sources really makes it difficult (please make sure you really understand this point before critiquing). Historical research can however help us in understanding what the early church believed about this event.

The reordering I propose is to start where the early disciples started, and work in the same order that the story developed for the early church theologians.

  1. Jesus lives, walks and preaches in Galilea and Judea.
  2. He gets crucified
  3. The disciples experience him as alive and develops a theology of the resurrection
  4. Parousia (Christ’s second coming)
  5. A high Christology develops which lead to thoughts on the incarnation

So I simply moved the incarnation towards the end of the story. I think a fairly good case can be made that of these 5 elements, that was the one that became important to the early church last. My reason for doing this, is that when putting it first, we tend to answer the quesion “Why was Jesus crucified?” from the intentionality of God, while reality is that Jesus was crucified because the Jews [UPDATE: meaning, certain Jewish leaders, certain members of the Sanhedrin.  Thanx to Hugo’s comment] were really reallymad at him, and probably some Romans weren’t that fond of him either. This is reality: Some people really didn’t like Jesus, they didn’t like what he said or did, he was a threat, so they killed him. And at least some of what he said would have given enough reason to label him a terrorist, whether rightly so or not, so they could give him the death of a terrorist, and not of a religious heretic, which was being stoned, as with Stephen.

OK, but if this is why Jesus was crucified, where do we go from here? Well, we can say quite a lot about what Jesus said and did, the resurrection must have at least had a first meaning that what he said didn’t end with his death. That crucifying Jesus couldn’t kill what he started! But obviously his resurrection also gave rise to thoughts on his divinity, which I think there is also good evidence for that his disciples didn’t consider him divine before the resurrection, and it even took a while afterwards for the idea to sink in.

Only now could thoughts on the Parousia and incarnation develop. Now we could go full circle, or work backwords, and sya that if Jesus was God, and God was crucified, and a few obvious links with Jewish sacrificial rites can be made, and Jesus was God incarnate, then God’s intention with becoming incarnate in Jesus was to be crucified. That wouldn’t even be theologically incorrect! But that definitely is not the only interpretation! And I’m sure that wasn’t the first interpretation made in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem; maybe it was in the house of Marcus’ mother, who later wrote a gospel with no incarnation as part of the narrative.

So, how do I preach it? I think historically a good case can be made that Jesus expected his own death. He knew about the rizing tensions, and that the leaders wanted to kill him. But did Jesus have to die? Yes, because the message he brought was so at odds with the rulers of the world, that they couldn’t exist side by side. Either he had to kill his message, or be killed because of the message. But the resurrection tell the story of hope, what Jesus brought cannot be killed! If I now turn the narrative into it’s usual order, I’d say that this is so at odds with what God is bringing to the world, that it would even go so far as to try and kill it, but it cannot be killed! The world cannot stop what God is bringing about in it.

Maybe I’ll have some more thoughts on how to preach this before Sunday. If you’ve actually read all the way down to this point, thank you! Let me know, and please critique and add on.

Personally I don’t really mind that much if you tell me the end of a movie before I’ve seen it. But this isn’t a characteristic shared by many, most people I know hate to watch a movie, or read a book, if they already know the end. To not even talk about watching a rugby match if you couldn’t see it live, and have already heard the outcome. And even to me this is understandable. I mean, there is little tension if you know that you’re team are going to win, that the heroin are going to marry the hero, or that the underdog will triumph in the end.

Similarly, we seem to have lost the tension between hopelessness and hope in Easter, because we already know the outcome. We already know that the “hero” is going to live again. Actually, we have told ourselves over the centuries, the hopeless part of Easter was not hopeless at all. If it was all part of a big divine cosmic plan, then why should we see hopelessness when we read about Jesus being crucified?

For the past year of two I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the narratives about the empty grave and the living Jesus on resurrection Sunday. The past few months Luke 24 has been pulling me in, all the more making me part of the Jesus story. The more I’m reading it, the more I realize that we have an absolutely amazing story here. In writing this narrative Luke really outdid himself, I think. The way he use tension and surprise, the way the narrative develops, the way in which it climaxes (think Eucharist), the whole story is just constructed in an amazing way.

Also this narrative is making me part of an experience which is not satisfied with simply saying: “Oh, we know we celebrate Jesus’ crucifixion, but don’t worry, in two days we’ll celebrate the resurrection and then all will be better again. It tells of Cleopas and his friend (wife?) who really isn’t expecting anything good to come out of the resurrection. In Luke’s gospel the followers of Jesus didn’t expect a resurrection. For them, Jesus was simply dead.

Which make the hope climax all the more exciting when we get there. When Jesus take the bread, pray, and hand out the bread, and they realize that there is life after death we find the real hopelessness turning into hope. Yes, and maybe we’ve been programmed to know what the end of Easter will be in such a way, that we forget that part of Easter is opening up new possibilities. Where there is hopelessness, we find the possibility of hope. Where there is death, the message of Easter is that life is possible. The resurrection is the story of new possibilities.

Many of us have broken the bread on Thursday evening in remembrance of the night Jesus introduced the Eucharist. Maybe we should now break the bread in remembrance that hope is to be found in the words: “oντως ηγερθη ο κυριος”, “indeed, the Lord has risen”.

In preparing myself for resurrection Sunday I read through the resurrection passages in the four Gospels again. But, before I give a few thoughts on that, first something about our context.

South Africa did not miss the historical Jesus debate, although it did maybe hit us a bit late. So in the past few years we had quite a bit of trouble with people starting to accuse others of not believing in the resurrection anymore etc. Some of you might remember the Ferdie Mulder case. On that note, for those of you reading Afrikaans, maybe take a look at his view and that of the church here, here and here. But actually this is just a very hurtful part of my own history, if you skip all those links it might be best.

Anyway. So, this whole question keeps on being discussed in our church. Check out the letters page of the new Kerkbode, or their site. Not just in the church, Kevin wrote about this as well in one of his last posts. So the question keeps on raging forth. So you believe in the resurrection.

Actually, the question usually gets a little more complicated. Kevin talks about a person bodily rising from the dead, and when the debates where raging at our faculty, the type of thing these guys would usually ask would also be something like: “So you believe in the physical literal resurrection?“.

Well, so I went to read the gospels. This is just a survey of what I read. I read them in the order they most probably were written.

Mark 16:1-8

Verses 9-20 were most probably added later, so I’ll just concentrate on the first 8. Jesus is just gone. The big boulder before his grave is gone, and he is gone, and some young guy is sitting there, giving the message to the young woman.

Matthew 28:1-10

You hava an earthquake, angels coming down, talking to the woman, and Jesus himself appears to them.

Up to this point none of the writers even try to explain how this can be, how it happened, or what kind of resurrection it was. Seemingly that wasn’t important. But Jesus is alive, that is the important part!

Luke 24:1-49

Again same story, woman at the grave, Jesus is gone. But this time Jesus appears to some people, but they don’t recognize him. Later he appears to the disciples, and eat some food so they can believe that he really lives.

John 20:1-21:14

Now the story gets a bit more explanatory. Jesus is gone, but when he appears he is recognized, still he appears and reappears though the doors are locked, but he asks Thomas to put his finger in the holes in his hands, and his hand in the wounds. And again Jesus eat with the disciples, although the comment in 21:12 that no one asked him “Who are you” intrigues me, and I don’t really know what to make of it.

Well, there is much better comparitive studies available. I’m not trying to rewrite theology here, this was just what I read. And my own way of seeing this?

Well, if we don’t believe in the resurrection simply because we haven’t seen that happening… well, I don’t know, isn’t part of the whole post-modern experience learning that what I have seen might not be all there is?

I don’t think the writers of the gospels try to explain how this is possible. Especially at the beginning of the church, when Mark and later Matthew was written. They just knew, Jesus lives, and that was enough. Whether it was with the same body or a different one, that didn’t really seem to bother then (that might even be true of even John). Luke and John try a bit harder to explain what happened, and that it wasn’t just some kind of illusion. But also they don’t really give us an answer as to how it happened.

This was resurrection Sunday. Jesus is alive. Precisely how that can be, I’m not sure about. Which kind of resurrection, I don’t really know. And I’m definitely not going to choose between a Matthean resurrection and a Johanine resurrection:-) Maybe I’ll just stick to “Jesus is alive”, stick to the mystery, acknowledge that I don’t know how this happened, and leave the arguing to people for whom it actually matters what the body looked like after the resurrection.

But hey, that’s just my take on it for the moment. How about you? How did you experience resurrection Sunday?