Does the first story of Jesus’ resurrection still have any power to change the way we live in the present time? The fact that each of the Gospel writers and St Paul describe the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection differently, is according to N. T. Wright, the best evidence that they were describing real memories of something that actually happened. After all, if you wanted to make up a story in which Jesus dies on a cross and is then miraculously alive again three days later, you would make a much better argued and convincing case than the one made by the gospel writers.
First-century Jews expected the coming of the Messiah. What they didn’t expect was that the Messiah would be someone like Jesus, who instead of leading a great national revolt to throw off the yoke of foreign domination, was put to death in the most ignominious way imaginable. Messiahs didn’t die on crosses, and if they did, then, it just stood to reason that they were not who they claimed to be.
First-century Jews, unlike Jews today, believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed that the dead went to heaven, where in a state of bliss they awaited the final day of resurrection when they would be raised to a new physical-bodily life, in a new world physically restored by God. Resurrection was not life after death. Life after death was the souls of the righteous resting in the hand of God, as the Book of Wisdom tells us. Resurrection was a stage beyond going to heaven to be with God. It was a return to new physical-bodily life, in a newly restored world. In other words, life, after life after death.
It’s remarkable to see how within a very short space of time, the first-century Jewish followers of Jesus had quite a different story to tell. They not only believed that Jesus’ death didn’t disqualify him as the Messiah but proved the case. They also believed that Jesus did not die and go to heaven but that by raising him to new physical-bodily life God had demonstrated the resurrection ahead of the time of the final fulfillment in which the whole world would be raised to life, after life after death.
Hence the variations in the post-resurrection narratives found in Luke and John, nevertheless stress the detail that Jesus was bodily present to the disciples, not in a spiritual body better suited to the environs of celestial bliss, but in a real-life human body that still bore the marks and signs of the earthly body that had died on the cross. So Luke and John both stress the reality of the wounds to be touched. In the same vein, Luke adds the nice detail about Jesus asking if there was anything to eat and being given a piece of fish.
But the real evidence for the veracity of the gospel narratives about the resurrection of Jesus lies in the power of transformation that came about in the first communities Christians, who lived according to a different story from everyone else. How can we account for this transformation and the rapid growth in the appeal of the Christian way of life?
The resurrection of Jesus made a difference in the first and following centuries of the common era, but does the story of Jesus’ resurrection still have any power to change us and the way we live in the present time? For me, the answer lies in the power of narrative- or story, to not simply describe but to actually construct-create reality.
On Easter Day my theme concerned the stories we choose to live by. Of course, the real problem lies in the fact that very often the stories we live by choose us, rather than we choose them. This can be a problem and the solution is to become more aware of which stories lay claim to us; shaping our worldviews in ways that with more awareness, we might not be so comfortable with.
Anyone of us has simply to look around at our civic and political culture at the moment to see how some very primitive and pernicious stories are laying claim to sections of popular imagination. We are witnessing a remaking of our society in ways that we as Christians should all find highly disturbing. Primitive and pernicious stories create a reality that hides the truth that we are all in this society together whether we like it or not.
The solutions to many of the issues confronting us in our society will only be found by working together. In order to do this, we need stories that bring us together.
As Christians, we must become more aware of the other stories that are choosing us and preventing us from living according to the resurrection story.When we live the resurrection story our Christian communities become agents of transformation in a world grown old. Materialism is a story of creation without a creator, according to which the material universe seems to run well enough without a need for a creator to guide it along its path. Instead of the creation reflecting the glory of God, it becomes something to be worshiped in itself. Another overarching story that lays claim to us is the myth of progress.
This last week we commemorated the deaths of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Most of you know of Bonhoeffer, but you may not be so familiar with de Chardin, a French Jesuit paleontologist who brought a mystical understanding to the natural process of the evolution of the planet. His thinking and writing gave voice to the 20th-century desire for a theology fit for the scientific age. Both priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin believed that all history is evolving towards the Omega-point – the point at which humanity will have evolved enabling the emergence of the Cosmic Christ. It’s a mystical vision that develops a theological version of the myth of progress. The kingdom of God evolves akin to the laying down of evolutionary layers, layer upon layer. The question though is how is God involved in this process? Does God have to wait upon human spiritual-evolution before the emergence of the Cosmic-Christ can occur – a theological version of the Enlightenment theme? It’s natural for the modern mind to read into de Chardin in this way.
Reading de Chardin’s seminal work Phenomenon of Man in my early 20’s his thought influenced me in the direction of embracing a progressive theological worldview. Progressive theology sees the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice through a process in which humanity, despite temporary setbacks and missteps along the way, continues under its own steam to move along the path of improvement. But where does God figure in this human-focused momentum for progress? How can we account for the fact that with each misstep evil and suffering seem to abound? The problem remains of how to account for the flourishing of evil in this process? The best answer, but an unsatisfactory one is that we simply ignore it, seeing evil as a temporary phenomenon that will be corrected in the overall march of progress.
It’s salutary to remember Teilhard de Chardin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the same week because each of these great Christians presents us with a very different version of the resurrection story.
Bonhoeffer’s theology points us away from an evolutionary model of the kingdom to one of present-time in-breaking of the kingdom. Through the commitment of Christians to live lives of holiness in the here and now the kingdom intrudes, interrupting the world of the status quo. This version of the kingdom requires something from us. Bonhoeffer asks with a poignant timeliness:
having learned the arts of equivocation, pretense, and cynicism are we still of any use? Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
The First Christian communities emerged out of a world not dissimilar to our own. It was a world in which enormous suffering was simply accepted as the way things were. It was a world in which cruelty was the normative quality of human behavior. Local communal identities and economic well-being were suffocated under a blanket of globalist exploitation that served the interests of an imperial trans-Hellenic elite.
These first Christian communities transmuted their Jewish belief in resurrection from a future far-off expectation into something realized in the here and now. Dominic Crossan terms this transmutation – collaborative eschatology. The first Christians were transformed by a hope that flowed from a belief in the resurrection as something that had begun with Jesus in the empty tomb, but more importantly, was lived-out in lives shaped by the resurrection story in the present. The first Christians saw in Jesus’ resurrection the next chapter in the long Exodus story of liberation. God was inviting them through the empowered of the Spirit to collaborate with the divine project of liberation and restoration.
The important thing was not that God had inaugurated the end time through raising Jesus from the dead, but that as the Messiah Jesus was in his person God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present.
The first Christians show us what can be done to transform a society in which the evils of a world grown old abound. We are those who belong to Jesus and are called to be the continued embodiment of God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present. Being empowered by the Spirit we have the responsibility to transform our present time to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
 Cited by N.T. Wright pg 46 Surprised By Hope