John Bennison Words and Ways | Embracing Resurrection as a Way of Life

Embracing Resurrection as a Way of Life

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

 

A Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage:

The Sermon on the Mount. PART IV of IV Parts

A pdf copy of this commentary to print and read is here.

Introductory Thesis

 

Recently one Sunday morning, I awoke in the pre-dawn hours, as the lingering shadows were just beginning their retreat, and the likelihood of another glorious spring day seemed like a good bet.

Then I remembered it was Easter Day for Western Christendom, and I quickly began to recall so many years of liturgical practice in my own personal past that comprised this observance; leading the faithful in procession into an empty, darkened sanctuary, and then banishing the darkness with light, and song, a jig and shouts of “Alleluia!”

Like the last faded echo, the absence of whatever had gone before and was no more could mean only one thing. Things which were “cast down were being raised up,” as one lovely old prayer once put it, “and things which had grown old were being made new.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.540)

There were no hocus-pocus notions of resuscitation or reincarnation, as far as I was concerned; though some among us undoubtedly still believed in the magic of immortality. But those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way — and nonetheless survived by nothing less than happenstance or grace to discover a gospel of second chances — knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

Those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way …   knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

But on this particular morning I’d rise with the prodding sunlight, and Germaine and I would resume a weekly ritual that has become as routine as any meaningful liturgical practice. Piling the dog into the station wagon, we’d head out for a 3-mile trek around the Lafayette Reservoir.

Falling in line, we would join the parade of all the other 2-legged and 4-legged congregants on the circular path. Some were amblers, some hikers, and others serious joggers. It is as if everyone proceeds in his or her own way, and at their own pace, with one’s own journey, along the shared path.

We’d greet others with a nod, a smile, and the usual greeting.  “Good morning to you,” one would say. “And also with you” – or something like it — would be the customary reply. There would be new faces and critters, but also others that have become familiar only because of the shared experience we repeat each week, separately and together. Somehow, it all seemed vaguely reminiscent; as if I’d done it all my life …

And besides, today was Easter Day. Again. It was the “pagan” festival of Estre, the ancient Anglo-Saxon (or Teutonic) goddess who represents the rebirth and renewal associated with the spring equinox.  Little wonder then that budding nature, eggs and bunnies, an Easter parade in some fashion or other, and the empty tomb of former things should all get jumbled together.

Of course, so-called mainline orthodox Christianity co-opted yet another pagan rite early on in its own tradition to make it all out to be something more; just as it had usurped what is aptly now referred to by some as the “voiceprint” of the wisdom tradition that preceded it in the teachings of a human Jesus.

In Paul’s earliest writings he shows little interest in that historical figure. The Christian faith quickly became a confessional religion about yet another dying-and-rising savior god. The various gospel traditions that included the teachings of the earthly Jesus were all written retrospectively. It is as if you are only meant to read all the parables, aphorisms and quips backwards; and in light of the numerous variations of a resurrection narrative that is hardly persuasive if you want to talk about any hereafter.

“The resurrection belief is the first overlay on the preceding wisdom tradition (of Jesus),” says David Galston. “The birth of Christian theology is the silencing of (the historical) Jesus.”

 Wisdom (i.e. teachings) is the foundation of the historical Jesus, not as fact but as voiceprint. What began as a lifestyle became, with remarkable speed, the worshipping of a Lord … What is necessary is to return to the school of Jesus, where Jesus is not confessed, not called Lord, and not even regarded as divine. To bring a silenced Jesus back to life – wisdom’s version of resurrection – means to initiate students in the lifestyle of the school. It means building a community th at addresses and solves the problems of our times on our own terms. It means extending the momentum of the teacher and the contours of his wisdom into the context of today. [from, “Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity”]

 

This commentary is the last of a 4-part series on the ethical teachings of Jesus from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It explores how we might, in fact, resurrect the voiceprint of this pre-Christian sage. We’ll work with what we’ve got; a gospel tradition that took the teachings of a human Jesus, and further encumbered them with confessional creeds about the man. Like sifting wheat from chaff, we’ll seek to discern both the pre-gospel voice of Jesus, and an adaptable momentum that might still propel us forward to a more meaningful understanding of our own particular time and place.

If there is still an Easter procession for the progressive Christian, this just may be it. Hence, the following commentary.

 

Commentary

 

In an attempt to retrieve some semblance of what may have been the essence of the historical Jesus’ teachings let’s reconsider three familiar texts from Matthew’s gospel tradition.

These comments will offer a two-part structure, first looking for the “voiceprint” of the Galilean sage.  And then – because we are far removed both temporally and existentially from the world of a 1st century C.E. itinerant Jewish peasant rabbi – we can ask the subsequent and obvious question of relevance; whether, and how, such a voice still speaks to us today, with an inertia that might still carry us forward with some form of enlightened meaning.

(Jesus said) ”No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account!  That’s why I tell you: don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there?”  [Mt. 6:24-25]

 

This somewhat-likely voice of the historical Jesus was an adaptation of a common proverb, and hardly original to Jesus. It was however employed by Jesus as a set-up to challenge everyone with divided loyalties; along with the anxieties created by our very human self-concerns for wealth and all that money represents.

However, Jesus then applies an unconventional twist to the popular view that prosperity was a sign of divine favor. While he does not condemn wealth, he does suggest elsewhere it can become an all-consuming distraction and seductive obstacle (e.g. the rich man as a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle to heaven).

And elsewhere, such as in the Beatitudes that begin the Sermon section, Jesus encourages those who are literally poor (not just “poor in spirit”) that they will– or at least ought to– have adequate provisions.  Clearly, Jesus’ notion of (divine) economic justice is about the notion that everyone has enough, so that true living can be about more than food and clothing.  If we are ever to realize the kind of “imperial rule of God” Jesus envisions, everyone – richer or poorer – will be relieved of the kinds of anxieties that come with both wealth and poverty.

What then is that momentum from such a teaching that might still propel us forward to a more meaningful understanding of our own particular time and place?  Here are just a few of any number of examples from which we could pick:

Millions of children in this country are filled with anxiety over what they won’t have to eat; while politicians argue over raising the minimum wage so full-time workers can lift themselves above the poverty level (as defined by the U.S. government). Employers and their political representatives warn of eliminating jobs that don’t pay enough to keep such workers out of poverty, arguing it will jeopardize a competitive market edge, and subsequently profits.

Meanwhile, college athletes at Northwestern University voted recently to form a union; arguing they were unpaid employees of their academic institution’s highly profitable football business.

And on the other side of the world, Nepalese Sherpa in Nepal have jeopardized the profitable tourist industry of climbers paying upwards of $75,000 to climb Mt. Everest by refusing to act as traditional guides; after 13 were lost in an avalanche. They say the work is too dangerous for the pittance they’re paid. And besides, they say, their mountain gods told them not to climb the Himalayas this year.  Apparently the Sherpa believe you cannot serve two masters.

To the old proverb, Jesus would add, “There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there?” If and when everyone has enough, might we all then have the chance to find what more to life there can be?  Another text:

“Don’t pass judgment, so you won’t be judged. Don’t forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back. And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you. Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own? How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me get the sliver out of your eye,’ when there is that timber in your own? You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.”  [Mt. 7:1-5]

 

Jesus “voiceprint”:  The advice about judging others was part of the common wisdom literature of Jesus’ time, and ours. Just as every action can cause an equal and opposite reaction, so too it is reasonable to expect you’ll receive whatever you dish out.  Again, this would have been familiar rabbinic teaching to Jesus’ listeners.

In all likelihood, however, the additional material is peculiarly characteristic of Jesus.  With the contrasting images of the sliver and timber, Jesus employs comedic exaggeration to make a larger point, and take the listener beyond what would have otherwise been familiar fare, to the un-conventional extreme characterized elsewhere as walking the second mile if commanded to walk the first; or giving someone else your shirt as well as your coat; or turning the other cheek, and even forgiving seventy times seven.

When Jesus refers to those “new” teachings he consistently demonstrates out of his own momentum from his own tradition as a “fulfillment” of the “law and the prophets,” and not simply their abolishment, it is important to remember at least three things here.

First, the historical Jesus had no messianic complex or identity. Assigning him the title “Christ” was a post-resurrection theological overlay of subsequent second-generation followers.

Second, Jesus’ unconventional application of the rabbinic teachings — with his style that included such comedic exaggeration — was intended to fulfill the spirit of the Law and the central message of the prophetic tradition that had become for some simply a stifling encumbrance in his own religious tradition. He seemed to have perpetually sought to confront – even subvert – the petrified religious institution and socio-political powers of the Empire; by depicting them both in stark contrast to what he incessantly portrayed as “God’s imperial rule.”

And third, while he held fast to such a godly vision, he typically sketched those images in the most common terms; without heavy-handed theological lingo or much “god” language at all. The sacredness of everyday life seemed to have been sufficient.

The exaggerated and contrasting image of the comparison  of sliver and timber would have been easily comprehensible to Jesus’ first listeners.  What was radically different was taking all those things a good Jew was supposed to believe, and then using whatever momentum was generated to take the next step and unconventional extreme of actually putting them into practice! This is what those early pre-Christian followers of the historical Jesus seemed to have done when it came to refraining from judging others by a different standard than we do ourselves. How might we still do the same?

The other day in Kabul, an American pediatrician working for the last decade as a volunteer for Christian-based humanitarian organization (along with two colleagues) was shot in the back and killed by a security guard who supposed to protect them; so they could serve the medical needs of Afghani women and children. As U.S. military forces continue to leave that country after a decade of fighting and killing, Western civilian targets are coming under increasing attack by opposing forces continually vying for power and control of their own little empire.

In an emotional, yet defiant statement before the news cameras in Chicago the next day, the widow of Dr. Jerry Umanos said, “Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

While very sad, there was nothing extraordinary in her heartfelt sentiments. But she then went on to add, “”We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this. We don’t know what his history is.”

Most of us might shake our heads with a combined sense of incredulity and admiration for the ability of this widow to mouth such words so devoid of hatred, judgment or condemnation. Some of us might even regret such sentiment could not have somehow been mustered a decade ago before we launched an all-out military assault that has had such tragic consequences. But the words of the Galilean sage who spoke simply about the timber of blindness in our own eyes was put into practice with the momentum first begun so long ago. Not just with the extraordinary, non-judgmental words of a widow, but the larger movement her late husband’s entire community represents.

After killing her husband, the gunman attempted to take his own life by placing the gun under his chin and pulling the trigger. He survived, but only as a result of the immediate medical attention he received at the very hospital where his innocent victim had worked so tirelessly to improve the lives of others.  There is extraordinary wisdom to be found in this modern-day parable; if only our typically conventional ways of responding to such violence had the eyes to see.

 There is extraordinary wisdom to be found in this modern-day parable; if only our typically conventional ways of responding to such violence had the eyes to see.

A third and final text from this section of Matthew’s gospel has to do with assurances for those who trust they will at least receive God’s best intentions; and should do likewise, as reiterated in a variation of the Golden Rule.

 “Ask – it’ll be given you; seek – you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you. Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened. Who among you would hand a son a stone when it’s bread he’s asking for? Consider this: Treat people in ways you want them to treat you. This sums up the whole of the Law and the Prophets.” [Mt. 7:7-8]

 

At first glance, such reassurances from a text deemed to be sacred by a religious tradition, and attributed to the “divine” voice of that tradition, would seem like welcome news; at least to the religiously naïve.  But in reality, most of us have learned you can ask for something, but you might not get anything. You can look, and look, and look for whatever you’re seeking, and never find it.  You can pound on the door you’d like to enter until your knuckles are raw, only to discover nobody’s home. As the Rolling Stones reminded a generation of religious skeptics, you can’t always get what you want.  The bigger and more elusive question is will everyone at least get what they need?

Some might find it surprising that many biblical scholars generally agree these idealistic lines sounded like the voice of the historical Jesus. The reason, however, is because of what some describe as the “gross exaggeration” in such given assurances that seemed so characteristic of the historical Jesus; and in which he seemed to take such delight. But what kind of momentum might the historical Jesus have meant to set in motion?

One has two choices: One can ask, seek and knock. Or one can not ask, not seek or knock on doors that might open up to places one has yet to discover. The only real assurance one has is in the progressive acts of engagement with whatever you seek and find to authentically reflect that sacred “imperial rule of God.” In such a repeated and expansive act, one practices resurrection.

Once we have come far enough along this journey to ask, seek and knock, how do we, how can we, how might we practice resurrection here and now; as if that is, in fact, all there is?

 

© 2014 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison

from the perspective of a Christian progressive go to http://wordsnways.com or http://thechristianprogressive.com

3 Comments

  1. You are so thoughtful and artistic in your writing about the resurrection. I appreciate so many ideas and pictures you paint. This gripping comment included ”We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this. We don’t know what his history is.”
    Idealist and realist.

  2. Fred Fenton /

    I like your “practice resurrection here and now.” Individual and community transformation are often present even in the most tragic circumstances.The parabolic teaching and sayings from the Jesus tradition seek to overturn conventional wisdom and open new possibilities. It is that fresh vision and approach to stubborn realities that is most needed in approaching the political and social problems of today.

  3. I like the idea whereby resurrection is called a new way of life for everyone. Too often the word is hidden behind a supernatural understanding that baffles 21st century thinking. We may never discover the real historical Jesus, but the teachings that have survived make that not necessary. I wish the organized church would also re-think the whole idea of resurrection.

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