Around 30 CE another prophet arose in Galilee. He made it all the way to Jerusalem, and entered the city in a way that confirmed for his followers that he was the long awaited Messiah.
The Messiah was often understood in terms of Israeli nationalism. He was someone who would rid the nation of the Roman overlords and restore it to its former glory.
Deeper thinkers understood their hope for the Messiah in much more universal terms. Yes, the "Lord [would] extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant … left of his people" and they would "swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west… and plunder the people of the east," but something more profound would happen. He would "decide with equity for the meek of the earth," and heal the fundamental enmities of the world. Even
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
The prophetic poetry of Isaiah 11 goes further.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In this is the understanding that even the hostility between humanity and the serpent of Genesis, which was a symbol of all that is wrong with the world, would be healed. (cf Genesis 3, esp. vv 14-15)
But for the Romans and the Jewish elite, the collaborators, this Jesus of Nazareth was just one more rag-tag trouble maker who needed to be disposed of before he stirred up too much trouble. So he was crucified as a warning to any other would-be revolutionaries.
And Pilate sighed with relief at the end of Passover, because one more festival had been endured without too much trouble. He went home to the gentler climate of Caesarea Maritima.
This all comes with hindsight bcause the first Gospel is not written untilat least 30 years later! The Acts of the Apostles will not be written until after 80 CE. In the usual course of events Jesus would have been forgotten. He would not even have rated a footnote in Josephus' histories.
The first Christian text which we have dates from around 48 or 50 CE, as Paul writes to people in Thessalonica, (a city outside Palestine.)
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ… the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Jesus is back! And Jesus is Lord, a title with political and divine implications.
After fifteen more years— by now Paul may even be dead— we have Mark, written very close to the destruction of Jerusalem. Mark presents a taut, action packed description of Jesus' activities. His betrayal and death is told in detail. Mark concludes with the story of an empty tomb and the claim
‘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. (Mark 15:6-7)
In 312 CE the emperor Constantine is converted and Christianity becomes the religion of the Empire. Some 2000 years later I live within this tradition with millions of other people. It is how I understand my whole existence. I hope that our humanity might one day embody the truths of Isaiah 11. Sometimes I glimpse it in the love between us as we seek to live Jesus' way. The story has persisted despite revolution and repression.
What happened? Why does the story persist?
To say he was "raised from the dead" tells us nothing about the mechanics or the biology of what happened. It expresses the resurrection of hope, and of destroyed dreams, in a way far more significant than the mere revivification of a person.
In that first New Testament letter Paul wrote
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4)
You can hear this assurance in a song by Paul Kelly, where "meeting the Lord in the air" is melded with the words of Psalm 23. It's being sung on a determinedly secular Australia comedy show, the sort of show which garners laughs via paedophile priests and wowsers. That such a song would receive the applause it did, is testimony to the enduring power of the story.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday reflect the great reality that, despite our biological limitations, death does not define us. Something happened in his death. Arguments over the physicality of his resurrection— whether it is only a symbol, if people really saw him, if he really ate food in their presence… all these risk missing the point. They risk diminishing the breadth of resurrection.
If those arguments define resurrection, the events of Good Friday and Easter Day can become cosmic magic which happens beyond us, and outside us. But resurrection, John understood, meant Jesus could say
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)
Resurrection is ongoing. Resurrection means we will change. Jesus is only(!) the first born of the dead. (Rev 1:5) God will change us, and our reality. Resurrection is for us. To reduce resurrection to a mere physical restoration of Jesus to life is to limit what God is doing, and to limit that to which God calls us.
Looking more deeply into resurrection we see that Paul was very clear that in some sense 'we are taken up' into a new life, and that 'the dead will be raised.' We don't know what that means in any comprehensive sense. We are talking outside our experience, grasping at hints of insight.
We can see Paul understood this, because later, when someone asked what sort of body those raised from death will have, he reaffirms there is something beyond death: "9If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." But then says
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.
Today we would say he is calling out a category mistake. "Don't you understand this is a metaphor, a symbol of something we can't fully express? You're reducing a symbol to the physical."
The gospels each retell the story of Good Friday and Easter Day for their own situation. When Mark is written (around 66-70CE) it is not clear to the scholars if the author surmises an uprising against the Romans is likely or if, in fact, Jerusalem is already under siege by Rome. It could even be that the city and the temple have already been destroyed. But the times are uncertain. Catastrophe is in the air.
In all this tumult, when we would long for some certainty, Mark refuses to show us the risen Jesus! There is only a report that he is risen, an empty tomb with a young man. Jesus is dead. There is no resurrection sighting, only the message that
… if we will go back to Galilee we will see him. … '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.’ And that’s where the Gospel of Mark ends! No one sees the resurrected Jesus at the end of Mark! … you have to go back to Galilee; which means, you have to go back to ordinary life to find the resurrected Jesus, the place where you live. He is going ahead of you in everyday life; in Galilee. (Prior)
There is a threefold pattern in Mark, which uses the language of resurrection. For example, in Mark 5, Jesus
… took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age) … 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... (Prior See also Mark 1:31, 9:36)
Mark is a carefully and deliberately crafted retelling of the tradition of Jesus' death and resurrection. It is designed for showing us how to find resurrection— to meet Jesus, indeed!— in the midst of the horror and hopelessness of defeat. Or in the midst of rampant militarism and revolution, and hard line religion. Even in a city under siege or the endless torture of a concentration camp— please God that I never need find him there.
It is written for the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, a reliving of events which plunged Israel into Exile and despair. And so it is written for us, as we despair for our world as the ice shelves melt and governments 'play Canute' over global warming or begin new coal mines, or as the barbarity of ISIS or the Guantanamos and Naurus of our own nations appals and terrifies us. It is written for us even as we face death, for Jesus, human like us, transcends death.
Live as Jesus lived. Risk death. Save your life and you will lose it. Lose your life and you will save it. And when someone sings Paul Kelly:
I am your true Shepherd
I will meet you there
beside still waters
Come and meet me in the middle of the air
we will understand… because this is our reality… because we are meeting him already.
Mark takes good care to show that all people fall short in their following of Jesus. The adoring crowd of Palm Sunday is fickle— Crucify Him! Understand that when the Gospels speak of the crowd, we always stand in their midst and, at best, may sometimes rise above their failings. The disciples, those closest to him— is that us, too?— flee. Indeed, one betrays him. Peter, their leader, denies him. A very few people, women, stand at the cross and even they were "looking on from a distance."
And he is dead. He is very dead. The final enemy that destroys us all cuts down this pretender as well. There are no heroes. Even Jesus loses faith, believing God has abandoned him. (Mark 15:34)
Yet this man, says Mark, despite all the power of Rome, and all the power of death, is the real son of God. The words are placed on the lips of a Roman centurion: his words ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!' are heresy against the religion of Rome, which held that Caesar was Son of God. (15:39)
And the centurion's words are born out by the empty tomb. But the tomb means nothing. We will only find the resurrected Jesus if we go back to Galilee.
Mark's gospel is challenge and invitation to enter into resurrection. It is not seeking to convince us so much as calling us to go deeper. It dares us to walk away from the enigma of an empty tomb without answers, and to become the answer by being signs of resurrection. To be, as Paul might put it, 'body of Christ' for the world to see. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
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!