No short cuts to resurrection

Please bear with me for a few paragraphs…

What will happen when I die? My heart will stop beating. Oxygen will no longer be carried to the brain and autonomous nervous system, and my body will begin to decay. Am I more than a body-brain? No one actually knows. What we do know is that the stream of consciousness we all call 'Andrew,' is something with which we can no longer communicate, when he dies. Whether 'Andrew' will stop, or cease to be, we do not know.

We know there will be no 'Andrew' we can talk to, or measure. And if he is limited only to the biological processes of the body; if that stream of consciousness we call 'Andrew' is just a chemical by-product of the processes of the body, then the death of the body would seem to imply the end of 'Andrew.' But is that all 'Andrew' is; just chemistry? We don't know.

We know we can observe some of 'Andrew's' emotions light up predictable bits of his brain. But he does not experience "Area C" light up. He knows love, or anger. He feels he is more than just meat. Is he, in some way, independent of the meat? If he is, the decay of the meat might not mean the decay of 'Andrew,' when he dies.

The answers to questions about such things are not obvious. We simply do not know, and this side of death, cannot know, what happens when our body dies. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to say who 'Andrew' is when I am alive, let alone imagine what happens when I die.

What I am trying to say here is that definitive statements about what happens when we die have no basis in scientific fact, or in lived experience. We simply don't know, and cannot know. And if we preach simplistic Easter sermons, even though some who want to be easily comforted may be comforted, there are others who will conclude we have nothing to say.

The one certainty I know is that I will die, whatever that means. Along with that, I also know that I am afraid of that dying. The work of Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theorists teaches us that the fear of death drives us in all sorts of unconscious ways. This I experience to be true.

Each time I think I have some measure of consciousness, and some peace, about my dying, I find new areas of life where I am driven, unconsciously, by the same fear— Richard Beck is wise to call his book The Slavery of Death. The live question for me is not, "Is there life after death?"— which is what I learned Easter was about in my younger days. The live question is, "How do I live with the constant fear— and reality— of death?"

In my past I sought to short-circuit this by appealing to the witness of the disciples to the risen Lord: He was seen. We can trust this. Therefore, knowing he is risen, we need not fear death. But age has taught me how undependable eyewitness experience is. And how easy it is to honestly believe we have seen something that did not happen. The non-existent movie Shazaam is a case in point.

The gospels witness to resurrection; this I believe. But if we reduce the gospel witness to an eyewitness account, and if we base our faith upon— entrust our life to— the simple belief that people saw him, then the same healthy scepticism we apply elsewhere in life, can cut our faith off at the knees in an instant. I want something deeper than this. I have seen what such insecure faith does to people; it makes us brittle.

What about the fact that 500 people at one time saw him? (1 Corinthians 15:6) Bart Ehrman makes a rather devastating comment about this. The very people who most argue for the veracity of such an experience as that of the 500, almost always deny the veracity of appearances of the Virgin Mary, which as he says, happen quite frequently. So if Mary appearing to a large group of people, is just a vision or an hallucination, and not "real," why is the risen Christ appearing to people anything other than… a vision? I want something deeper than this. I'm not going to trust my life to this.

Here is my point: When I used to hear conversations like this introduction, they would raise huge anxiety within me. I would keep a poker face— at least I think I did! — but I was always in turmoil inside. And the terror we can see in the comments on any web page, or after any Facebook post, that departs a hair's breadth from someone's orthodoxy, indicates that "simple belief" in resurrection does not work. It does not free us. It does not heal us. Vehement defence of resurrection betrays brittle and defensive folk entrapped by an ideology which is not giving them peace, and which drives them to violently reject those who differ from them.

Stop believing in the resurrection of Jesus, and instead, trust him in this life. There is no short cut to resurrection.

My experience as a Christian has taught me not to hope for resurrection. Something I am not yet able to articulate in a concise way convinces me that to hope for resurrection; that is, to live with the hope that there is some 'Andrew' who knows he is Andrew after my death, is unhealthy. I know too well that when I hope for resurrection, I short circuit the reality of living in the face of death. It is too easy for the hope of more life— for me, anyway— to become a denial of death. And soon, it is no longer God in whom I trust.

So does Good Friday and Easter mean anything to you, Andrew?

It means everything. The Good Friday and Easter stories betray a depth of spiritual experience which makes our shallow "say the magic words and be saved" theologies almost blasphemous.

The stories show folk who longed for meaning and identity; that is, who longed to be someone who had a place in the universe, just as I long to have a place. The stories show them finding such meaning in the person of Jesus. "You are the Messiah," Peter and Martha said. (Matt 16:16, John 11:27) You have healed our lives, brought hope, given us shape. I experienced this as a younger person. I was given— graced with— a framework in which to live.

Then the gospel narratives witness to the destruction of all that. Death utterly cuts off the hope. It destroys their place in the universe. Jesus is dead. We tend to be so focussed on "resurrection" and "eternal life" that we miss just how traumatic this is. Their last and only prop in life has been destroyed. Jesus himself cries to God, "Why hast thou abandoned me?" This is dereliction; there is nothing left. The only reality at this moment is death.

The wonder of this is not that Jesus is then seen alive; we see dead people all the time.

The wonder is that in this raw confrontation with death, a few people record the devastating death and loss of hope, and say, "This is the purpose of life." My time is near, my betrayer is at hand, [and] this has taken place so the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled. (Matthew 26)

The wonder is that this is being written by people who are also saying, "for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered," even as brother delivers up brother. (Romans 8:36, Matt 10)

This is not wish fulfilment. It is not magic words to believe in. It is a people who develop a practice which brings them into confrontation with the powers which will seek to kill them! They are not avoiding life, but diving more deeply into it. They are inviting death! To be compassionate is to make ourselves vulnerable— more vulnerable to death.

Loving God by loving neighbour;  making everyone neighbour— this is the point of the parable of the Samaritan; forgiving even the unforgivable, as the father forgives the prodigal; testing one's commitment to all this by measuring one's love against the plight of the helpless— that's the last parable in Matthew before Good Friday; all this marks us for death. In my privileged and safe life, I've suffered only one visceral attack for my faith. It was invoked in terms of my hypocrisy— and probably with some cause— but underneath, it was something else: raw anger because someone was seriously choosing the good. To live as Christ lived— even to try— is to invite death, because some will feel it as judgement.

What moved these people? Saying they saw the risen Christ does not provide me with an answer. The people who trumpet this kind of certainty, too often disappoint me, and the people who inspire me, are too often humble and agnostic about their certainties.

I think these people somehow discovered the power that comes from the facing of our own death. I think they found something in the gift of life with Jesus that even his death could not take away.

Perhaps they saw it in the faithfulness to God that was his determination to go to Jerusalem. His key act, even when it was clear to him that everything was falling apart, was to say, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want." And then, "Father, if this cannot pass, unless I drink it, your will be done." And then, at the end, "Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand." He walks willingly to his death.

This is not only how to die. This is how to live.

We dodge between the powers in the life of grace, as Bill Loader puts it, and then, if a power finds it useful to seek to destroy us, we face it. This is faith. Whichever power has sought us out will take care of the rest. Our calling is simply to live as graciously as we are able, and as we have done all the while. So Jesus does not resist. He does not resort to violence in order to escape. He quells the disciple with the sword. The gospel tells us that this utter powerlessness overpowers death. It breaks open the tombs of the saints.

I believe this. Not because someone saw the Risen Jesus and told someone else who, through a long line of witnesses, told me. I believe it because I am beginning to experience it. I have begun to die, and in a mix of undeserved grace, and plain pigheadedness, I have been able to begin to walk towards my death.

I can feel my body failing. It hurts. It won't do what it once did. My memory is failing; sometimes I can't find the simplest of words. My clumsiness is growing. I am not "successful." There is no money to hide behind, or to buy distractions. And I find the practice of my faith has put me on the outer with my country; I experience the country I love as just as much a vassal state to Empire as was the Judea of the Sadducees to Rome. I am no longer at home here.

Through all of this, something has been driving me, despite myself, to give more of myself to others. I'm not good at this, but I try. In the trying, two things are happening. The first is that I am even less at home, and more at odds with what Australia is becoming; I am exhausted by it; frightened by the endless challenges of discipleship; shocked by my growing sense of vulnerability. Seeking to love diminishes me! I have some peace with this. Love which does not involve diminishment and loss is only a pretence from privilege.

The other things is that I am also enthralled, and freed. I stumbled across words by CS Lewis, which must be read in the shadow of love's diminishment.

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

The practice of compassion, even as poorly as I have done it, has freed me for an enjoyment of life which I have never known, and did not imagine could be true. I am able to give myself to life— live it— rather than stand doubting and reserved upon the side lines. I am at home in a way I have never been. I have felt a goodness which I did not know.

Don't seek resurrection. Seek to give yourself away.

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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Good Friday and Easter texts at One Man's Web 
Matthew 28 - The Resurrection of Belief 
Matthew 28 - Resurrection Sermon 
John 18-19 - Grief in Slow Motion 
John 18-19 - Jesus did not die for me - Good Friday 
John 18:33-37 - Back and Forth between Two Truths 
John 20:19-29 - Easter in the Anthropocene

You can see more on the Lectionary Page

Wes Penney 10-04-2017
Thank you for this post Andrew, thank you. ...and if you may grant me a selfish comment - I wonder if Andrew moved beyond his given identity he would realise that his is God and therefore survives death?
Andrew 11-04-2017
I think this is one of those places where the poetry says something and we think, "that would mean..." It's not how my poetry "flows" but I can see things may run in that direction.

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