Resurrection is no Easter conjuring trick

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
20 Mar 2008

As death continues to do its worst we find ourselves living in a ‘long Saturday’, suspended irresolvably, it seems, between the threat of despair and the possibility of hope. The former looks substantial and unavoidable. But what of the latter? By its nature, hope is a “not yet” which may turn out to be a “not ever”. On this matter we should not dissemble. Tony Campolo once said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming”. Life, however, is often lived in the uncertainty of the in-between, as the Jewish literary critic George Steiner reminds us in Real Presences.

So let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to speak, as Christians should do, of the “bodily resurrection of Jesus”, the wounded and crucified healer, as the very basis of our life? Given our fairly lazy habits of mind in this area, the answer isn’t easy or obvious. But nor is it entirely unobtainable or inscrutable. In essence the claim of the resurrection is not that bunnies come out of hats, that dead people carry on, or that corpses magically reassemble. This is the stuff of fantasy. Note the playing with this theme in the latest episodes of the TV series ‘Torchwood’ – as Owen wrestles successfully with death, and then lives on into the future as a ‘dead man walking’, claiming at one point to be risen like Jesus. Not quite, Owen, mate! [1]

Rather, to confess that “God raised Jesus” is to believe that everything of substance in the life of Jesus, the human person who is indissolubly God’s person, is dynamically taken up and made eternally available in, through and beyond death into the life of God – a quality of living and a form of life that affirms, but also transcends, anything we can currently mean by the term ‘life’. This is not any old life but “new life”, says the New Testament, in a variety of ways. It is, if you will, God’s unconditioned love recreating possibilities for emergent life that we thought had been lost, sinfully destroyed, denied, wasted, gambled away or blocked off. Not some vague post-mortem assimilation into the Godhead, but a new order of being.

It is important to note that this way of speaking about resurrection, which I believe is both consistent with the Gospel vision and workable as the context of a contemporary understanding, does not make its sense by fitting conveniently into our existing ways of looking at things, but by reframing our vision completely. For the awkward but essential fact is this. God is God and we are not God. Among other things, this means that, rationally, the essence of the risen life made manifest for us as God’s vindication of the crucified Jesus cannot be captured or defined by physics, metaphysics, empirical procedure, ecclesial interest, pious doctrine or positivistic logic. It can only be received as gift – “by the power of the Spirit”, as we say. And since its concern is not some Platonic, separate, disembodied life, but the real, substantial, ambiguous, messy and bloody kind we think we know (but often get horridly wrong), the gift can only be received “in the Body”, as we seek together to live the risen life in the material world of suffering and injustice. It is not a kind of arbitrary fiat that absolves us from the reality of either life or death. That is its hope and its threat. [2]

To believe that “Christ has been raised” is to live in a new way, sustained by God rather than our own efforts alone, as if the order of death had no final determination. Among other things, it is to refuse killing as an instrument of policy, as an untruth not just a moral outrage. This is why resurrection, the non-violent, non-vengeful and utterly gracious (‘given’, not made or claimed) form of eschatological living, is the ultimate threat to Caesar and his empire – which finally can only rule by death and its thrall, because it knows of no other possibility that would allow it go on being what it is. Deadly. That is why the first Christians were accused of seditiously saying “we have another king, Jesus” (Acts). Easter is about regime change, the destruction of powerful power by weak power – “not by might, not by force, but by my Spirit says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah).

Hold on, though. What does that “as if” mean? It means that we live by faith. Not by a denial of material evidence (as that word is popularly misrepresented these days), but by an awareness that the life of God which we believe we have tasted in the resilience of a love that faces, absorbs and challenges suffering, cannot finally be pinned down by what we are capable of bringing to the table of investigation. It is of a quality that demands more than we can get by putting things under a microscope. It resides in the kind of liberating epistemic humility that comes from recognising that God is the ground of our life, rather than the other way round. So we do not and cannot “know” in some forensic way, but only by an awkward act of “lived trust” – or, rather, by a whole series of acts of lived trust sustained by prayer (a reaching out to receive God’s ways, recognising that they are not ours) and by the fabric of our common life. The ‘frame’ for this way of living in and as the Body of Christ in the world, Christ’s crucified and risen presence in fragments, is baptism.

In baptism we are invited to a burial. Our own. Passing into the water we are taken down into death, and emerging from the water we recognise that in this, and in everything, we are inseparably joined to the life of God, to those who are also baptised into that risen life, and to all who resist the power of death in this world. As those baptised in Christ we live with a constant reminder of our mortality and of an immortality which is not ours but God’s alone, and in which we may fully participate only when we have let go of deathly living, when we have been prized out of the tomb to which we cling with such fervour. For short of that of which baptism speaks, the life we crave is avoidance of death and the death we crave (and we do) is an avoidance of the pain of living. For we have been, in Julia Esquivel’s words, “threatened by resurrection”. [3]

What then, of the molecules of Jesus, which everyone wants to reduce the issue to these days? Reading between the lines, as well as along them, St Paul is quite clear that “the new body” which God’s raising of Jesus creates is not simply a reassembling of bits of stuff, a reanimation, a “conjuring trick with bones” (as Bishop David Jenkins once correctly characterised the popular caricature of resurrection). [4] What the “new body” is is bound to be beyond our ken, because it is the work of God, who is not a human being writ large, but Life giving life. In talking of Jesus’s “life beyond living and dying” St Paul therefore “coins a phrase”. He writes enigmatically of the risen Jesus as having “a spiritual body”. By this he does not mean a less-than-real one, an ethereal one, a ‘vain spirit’, but the embodied power, presence and personality that is Jesus made substantial in God, rather than in any type of material which decays or corrupts. He also means Jesus’s life made available to us in an unlimited sense (unlike that which is possible in “our mortal bodies”) through the Spirit, the Disturber. [5]

Language, being our language, naturally and unavoidably runs out of words and phrases to describe this, because description – an account of what we have seen, touched and mapped with our senses – is not fully possible when it comes to the resurrection. Christianity is founded on a missing body, or more accurately one that looks as if it is mis-placed and turns out to have been re-placed. [6] Metaphor not measurement is what is needed to be grasped by this, poetry more than prescription.

Faith, by which I also mean “facing everything that is in the light of God”, [7] remains the inescapable (but painful) form of the logic needed to comprehend risen life. Nothing less will do. When it comes to the unconditioned life of God there can be no other way of “seeing” except through a glass darkly, because the order of being to which we refer keeps on going beyond what we can specify. It is the shadow of this light (if I may use a deliberate paradox) in which “we live and move and have our being”. If that makes sense it is only because in some sense we have tasted it – something unquenchable in the midst of that which is clearly vanquished, like the women facing those death squads in Guatemala, to whom Esquivel’s poem partly refers. In embracing death through the cause of life they threaten the regime of death with resurrection. With life in God’s hands.

St Paul again: “For if Christ is not raised, your hope is in vain, and you are above all people to be pitied.” [8] The stakes could not be higher. How then, shall we live, and by what or whose power? That is the Gospel’s unavoidable Easter challenge. At the end of the day, it is alarmingly practical. That may prove an even bigger disincentive than getting our heads round the theology, frankly. [9]

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NOTES

[1] This point was made to be by Dr Pete Phillips. Thanks to him and to others who have commented upon, and helped improve, this sermon.

[2] Bonhoeffer makes this point powerfully from his prison cell in Nazi Germany, and in the shadow of his execution.

[3] See also: Simon Barrow, Threatened by Resurrection: The Difficult Peace of Christ (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, due October 2008).

[4] Dr Jenkins, who moved from being Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds to the Anglican Bishopric of Durham, and is now retired, is still misrepresented as someone who “doesn’t believe in the resurrection” (he most certainly does, though not in the simplistic way it is usually affirmed or dismissed) or who “said it was a conjuring trick with bones” (his point was precisely the opposite - namely that the kind of life God offers is not reducible to magic but is about a thoroughgoing transformation in and beyond the material world as we think we know it.)

[5] To grasp fully the coherence of this argument it is necessary to understand it in relation to the Christian experience of God as a whole. See: ‘Three Ways to Make Sense of One God’ - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/5312

[6] This point is elucidated in William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) http://catholicanarchy.org/cavanaugh/

[7] A definition in the same family as those generated by Nicholas Lash. See my: ‘What Difference Does God Make Today?’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/4921

[8] Romans 15. 13-15.

[9] For the social and political implications of all this, see, 'Why the church needs a new foreign policy' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6941

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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